Junior Kimbrough
All Night Long
Fat Possum/Capricorn

Junior Kimbrough is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, a phenomenal talent who developed an innovative blues guitar style without a single non-African-American influence -- at least according to New York Times critic Robert Palmer. Of course, the biggest flaw in Palmer's logic is his assertion that multiple generations of blacks developed the blues without a single Caucasian influence. Get real. There's never been a musician who refused to borrow an innovation because the originator was the wrong color. Kimbrough is a world-class blues guitarist, and has been for decades. He's also quite obviously been within radio range of Memphis, and what makes this disc so innovative is that Kimbrough has found and used elements in popular music the same way rock has always borrowed from the blues. He's also passed these lessons on to his son and drummer Kenny Malone, which is why All Night Long shows what blues drumming should sound like in the '90s. Play this CD for die-hard Led Zeppelin fans, and they'll hear Kimbrough accomplish something Jimmy Page could only try to do. Considering the way Zep ripped off the blues, it's about time someone did what Kimbrough has done -- and done well. -- Jim Sherman

Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains

Back when it mattered, Alice in Chains sparked many a heated debate over whether the Seattle quartet was grunge cleverly disguised in heavy-metal trappings or true headbangers unfortunate enough to be swept up in the flannel-hued wave of hype coming out of the Northwest. The band would likely side with the latter claim, though it's hardly an issue now. Grunge is dead, Metallica has its Grammy, and so Alice in Chains can pocket its royalty checks from the Singles soundtrack and move forward guilt-free. Their new CD shows the group going about the business of evolving as a band, and it's a decent -- albeit flawed -- step in the right direction.

Five years ago with Facelift, a yawner of a debut buried in mountains of power-chord drudgery, the band found itself a comfortable heavy-metal rut. But underneath the gloom-and-doom machismo was a touch of art-rock sensitivity. This thoughtfulness emerged full force on 1993's Jar of Flies EP, a maelstrom of muffled desperation powered by soaring melodies, intricate arrangements and surprising restraint. After its completion, singer/lyricist Layne Staley went off to rehab for heroin addiction, calling into question Alice in Chains' musical direction, as well as its future as a band.

From the sound of Alice in Chains, the answers are still pending. On the one hand, the CD is a new beginning, mixing the subtlety of Jar of Flies with the churning heavy-metal splendor of Facelift. On the other, it's not quite the leap forward hinted at on Jar of Flies. For those expecting a proper fleshing out of the ideas on that EP, Alice in Chains offers little satisfaction, aside from the occasional dip into funkier, blues-based grooves and relaxed sonics. Instead of the fully realized result you'd expect after nearly two years of soul-searching, at least half of Alice in Chains has the feel of a rough draft in need of a decent editor. Part good is better than all lousy, I suppose. But then again, at more than an hour in length, Alice in Chains could have been trimmed to make a great 25-minute Jar of Flies II.

-- Hobart Rowland

k.d. lang
All You Can Eat
Warner Bros.

If Melissa Etheridge, poster-girl for lesbian rockers everywhere, can claim (as she did in a recent issue of Vanity Fair) that the mere sight of Brad Pitt made her consider heterosexuality, then I guess I'm within my rights when I say that the sound of k.d. lang's voice brings out the closet lesbian in me. It's not just the voice, of course, though that alone ought to be enough for any red-blooded pansexual to hang his or her hat on. There's also the matter of this new album, with its double-entendre title and ten songs of bridled sexuality -- bridled, because lang's slow-burn sensuality is way more sophisticated in its delineation of desire than, say, what's-her-name's declaration that she wants to "freak you all night long" or Madonna's hard-body taunts.

If in the past lang has used her taut intelligence to inhabit roles (remember, vegan lesbian Canadian lang once tried to pass herself off as a cowgirl), here she relaxes into a comfortable vulnerability. She pleads: "How bad could it be, to lose yourself in me?" (from "Sexuality"). She dreams: "If I could only be the queen of popularity, things would just come to me, so easily" (from "If I Were You"). She co-depends: "I'm all right if you're OK" (from "You're OK"). And after nine tracks with lyrical moods more or less summed up in song titles such as "Maybe," "Acquiesce" and "Infinite and Unforeseen," she ends on a less indefinite note with "I Want It All."

Musically, this is a rainy-day-and-a-cup-of-coffee sound. Lang and longtime co-producer Ben Mink keep to subtlety with a highly polished adult-contemporary wallpaper of soothing bass lines, beats and string washes that never once rocks, but never really needs to. The mood -- desire, in a word -- floats across without much prodding. And in an adult-contemporary world drenched with false nostalgic pap, lang's lyrics alone are enough to transcend an unremarkable musical setting. The voice is just sweet icing.

-- Brad Tyer

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Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman
Brad Tyer