Steven Kowalczyk
Moods and Grooves

Suave New Englander Steven Kowalczyk fancies himself a young Tony Bennett -- or, at the very least, a thinking man's Harry Connick Jr. Moods and Grooves is not so much an introduction as an outline of what to expect in years to come from this bushy-browed cocktail crooner, who received coaching in the tricks of the trade at the University of Massachusetts. Like Bennett, Kowalczyk is just as much -- or more -- about pop as he is about jazz, a truth evident to the greatest degree on the beautiful, lilting ballad "Old." Here, instead of working to tie his phrasing to a notebook of practiced mannerisms, Kowalczyk lets the drama of the music dictate his delivery. It's one of the few times on Moods and Grooves when you get a true sense of this guy's impressive range.

While the arrangements are restrictive enough to allow for only the most basic instrumental improvisation, this snug setting works fine, since Moods and Grooves is hardly about originality; instead, it's about style. This isn't to say that Kowalczyk is devoid of personality, though it may not surface on such upbeat numbers as "Mean Alligator" and "Buttercup," where he's working his best Bennett imitation. And the slick production -- courtesy of Shane Keisuter and Atlantic CEO Ahmet Ertegun, who also provides the loving little intro to the singer on the CD's inside cover -- does little to flesh out the guts behind this stuff.

Kowalczyk penned all but one of the 12 songs on Moods and Grooves, and while he sprinkles his prose with enough old-school sentimentality to make the most jaded casino audience swoon, he's got a quiet, brooding side. For every "this one's for my buttercup," there's the chilling realization that all is not roses and cognac. ("Now my life's a total mess," he confesses in "Vampire.") Kowalczyk is no less a suave romantic than Sinatra, but he also knows when it's time to come down to earth and take his eyes off the cue cards. He's out to do Vegas one better, and while his singing isn't likely to break any standards, the writing on Moods and Grooves makes a case for his staying power.

-- Hobart Rowland

Van Morrison
Days Like This
Polydor Records

Wisdom and grace aren't always acknowledged in the pop music business, probably because there's not much of it around. The folks we expected to age gracefully and wisely -- name about anyone from the '60s -- tend to be more interested in spectacle these days than in expression. Van Morrison is one of the glaring, and welcome, exceptions: the creator of Celtic Soul has never been shy about pulling the curtain back to show us his private thoughts and pain.

Days Like This is like a letter from an old friend -- one who happens to be depressed as hell. Well, that's not exactly accurate. Morrison, employing his exquisitely personal amalgam of American R&B and Irish feeling, explores all sorts of emotional terrain here, bouncing from the hopeful, springy soul of "Perfect Fit" to the sad, rain-soaked balladry of "Melancholia." Morrison is abetted beautifully on these 12 tracks by Pee Wee Ellis' tasteful and understated horn charts, something of a fine glass of wine complementing the Irishman's highly intimate melodies.

Morrison may be the most reliable of the gray-haired '60s refugees. You can practically bet the farm that one out of every three Morrison albums (and he's producing more music than just about anyone, young or old) will be a gem. Days Like This is his first virtually flawless diamond since the twin-disc Hymns to the Silence. It's tough music, it's sad, it's depressing, it's humorous ("Songwriter" is the funniest tune Morrison's written in years), it's hopeful and it's real. You can't ask for much more from an artist.

-- Tim Carman

China Drum
Barrier EP
510 Records

Searching for a U.K. version of the Goo Goo Dolls? Look no further than this six-song sampler from China Drum, an ornery trio of Brits with enough gift-of-gab to their grind to make the likeness to Buffalo, New York's finest a flattering, if superficial, one.

Actually, what drives Barrier EP, other than the monumental choruses and deft wordplay, is the power of three voices over one. The bulk of the disc features all three members spitting into the mikes with an almost patriotic vigor. The results are most gripping on "Barrier," "Simple" and "One Way Down." Come to think of it, the quieter "Biscuit Barrel" ain't so bad either, perhaps because China Drum has enough sense to lather Barrier EP's one mushy song -- the typical acoustic introspective number -- with a brutal vocal that foams with equal amounts of sarcasm and regret.

Barrier EP finishes as grandly as it begins with "Meaning," an accelerated burst of pulpit-speak that's followed by the oddly dismissive little sound bite, "That's punk rock, son." Sorry blokes, too tidy for punk -- which is meant as a compliment. It'll be interesting to see if China Drum can sustain this level of quality through a full CD.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Geraldine Fibbers
Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home

Rawer and bolder than fellow L.A. hard-core folkies X, the Geraldine Fibbers have lashed out a frighteningly successful debut CD. Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home is an oppressively heavy disc, both musically and emotionally, that brings punk rock as close as it's ever come to sounding rootsy. Her voice both ferocious and painfully beautiful, singer Carla Bozulich can't seem to decide if she's Patti Smith or Patsy Cline. Similarly numbing and relentless, Daniel Keenan's bleeding guitar and Jessy Greene's weeping violin grind and moan like they're the Velvet Underground reinterpreting Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes. In other words, the Fibbers growl resembles 10,000 Maniacs -- if, that is, that group had really sounded like 10,000 maniacs.

Throughout Lost Between, Bozulich wails over broken and destructive relationships -- that common lyrical bond between classic country and gothic gloom-rock -- as if she'd met the devil at the crossroads, pierced his tongue, then given him a ride with her to hell. She sings about sinking to a point so low that pitiful hate is the only place to turn. Sometimes she tells stories, such as the grotesque tales in "A Song About Walls" and "Richard." Other times she just spews narcotized hallucinations such as "Lillybelle" and "Marmalade." But always the imagery teeters nervously between good-night prayer and bad nightmare. The accompanying music is a symphony to her gaunt and desperate opera.

-- Roni Sarig

Bloodhound Gang
Use Your Fingers
Cheese Factory/Underdog/Columbia

You'll find white rappers generally divide into two camps: the Beastie Boys disciples and the House of Pain clique. In the former, the hip-hop has nothing to do with the African-American experiences that gave birth to the rap form; rather, it's borrowed to express the middle-class, often suburban, ennui that comes from too much pop culture and too much time on your hands (e.g. Beck). In the latter, groups attempt to co-opt the Afrocentrism and identity worship from black rap and use it as a template for their own particular ethnic trumpeting (Irish, in House of Pain's case).

On their debut CD, Use Your Fingers, Bloodhound Gang make it clear which group they'd expect to be confused with: "No I'm not the guy from the Beastie Boys!" yells Jimmy Pop. (Or is it his partner Daddy Long Legs?) Hailing from somewhere near Ween-land (that is, suburban Philadelphia), BHG is a self-contained frat party dying to offend anyone who'll listen to their often hilarious, in-your-face political incorrectness. They fight for their right to be moronic throughout -- whether worshipping Rip Taylor or invoking the Cavity Creeps from an old toothpaste ad.

It's not all just fat chick and cripple jokes, though: BHG back up their obnoxious idiocy with some fairly wise musical maneuvering. While their age and background lead them to repeatedly mine the '80s for material -- Duran Duran and Cure samples, a "Kids in America" cover -- a sly comment or ingenious a cappella vocals prove they're surprisingly sharp and able lads. Best of all, BHG's knack for placing references completely out of context keeps irony in control and ensures thatthe lunacy reigns on unfettered.

-- Roni Sarig

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Tim Carman
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig