Carefully considering Carolyn... I was sitting at home the other day with a cold beverage near at hand, Carolyn Wonderland's new Bursting with Flavor CD cued on the hi-fi and a hard assignment staring me in the face: I had decided I was going to jot down all the reasons why my first impression of this gritty effort from Houston's premier blues-rock belter had been so, well, underwhelming.

I knew I had to get my story straight. Given her rabid Houston following, Wonderland is no one to dismiss lightly. Mine had to be legitimate beefs, ones that fans and skeptics alike could hold up to the light and examine.

Perhaps, I thought, the problem was that Bursting with Flavor had been produced for the Justice label by owner Randall Jamail, who's gotten a certain amount of slagging in these quarters. But no, that wasn't it. Jamail has actually done a clean job this time around. Flavor's sound is punchy, crisp and unencumbered by excess fiddling. Besides, a few months back, days before he signed Wonderland and her Imperial Monkeys to his label, Jamail had been kind enough to spot me lunch. I came away from that meeting convinced that his feel for Wonderland's music was dead-on, and Justice's actions since then have only bolstered my judgment. Jamail showed his confidence in the Monkeys' potential when he signed them to a generous, multi-release deal.

And to top it all off, he had been nice enough to flip the bill for my fish tacos. But it's not the free food that makes me agree with Jamail that Wonderland's latest is a steep improvement over 1995's muddy, uncertain Play with Matches (which had been recorded for Big Mo Records, and which Jamail bought back from the label in a final effort to free Wonderland from her contract with them). Nope, in this instance, Jamail's one of the good guys. So since I couldn't blame him, I was again left questioning my initial lack of enthusiasm.

It was time for another beer.
Later that day, six Lone Stars spent, stereo smoking (one is advised to play Bursting with Flavor at full volume for the proper effect), I finally had before me a list of criticisms. But my confidence was shaken by the realization that the more I listened to the CD, the more I liked it. First time around, I had figured that if you've heard one Stones knock-off (on Flavor, it's the CD opening "Last Living Stranger"), you've heard them all. A few spins later, though, I was less inclined to question the Monkeys' right to pay homage to their idols with this spunky original. Straight up, the tune rocks.

Wonderland has found herself a pair of less derivative potential classics in "Stuck in the Road" and "Loose Ends," two regret-fueled laments doused in the salty moisture of night sweats and desperate tears. Co-written with former Imperial Monkey Screamin' Kenny Blanchet, the songs offer the first real proof that Wonderland is indeed coming into her own as a composer and lyricist, relying less on her record collection and more on gut instinct. Ditto for Wonderland's much-improved vocals. Her low-register vibrato, accented by the occasional growl-and-yowl combo, had a tendency to leave me cold on Matches. It was as if the feisty spirit of Janis Joplin had been frozen inside the chilly pipes of Melissa Etheridge. But on Flavor, that impersonation-like stiffness spoils Wonderland's lusty delivery only rarely.

My list of grievances was beginning to shrink.
Still, there's no getting around Bursting with Flavor's filler-heavy second half, especially the go-nowhere numbers "Mama Don't Like My Friends," "It Ain't Me Dammit" and "Darlene" (the last about a sorry sap's unlikely love affair with his black pooch). These work a lot better for the Monkeys on-stage than they do here. Even so, the loose arrangements give guitarist Eric Dane plenty of space to play, and throughout Flavor his slide work is simply liquid. This is Texas, after all, where letting one's hair down on occasion is important to survival.

Okay, I'd come to a conclusion. At once tough and tender, accomplished and lazy, Bursting with Flavor flashes all the right signals. Wonderland simply needs more time to grow into her role as leader -- and when she does, look out. Think of all the years it took Bonnie Raitt to learn how to harness her strengths. Just like Raitt once was -- and, some say, still is -- Wonderland is the best sort of work in progress. (The CD is due in stores on Tuesday, so you can see if it's me or just the Lone Star talking. That night, the band plays at the Last Concert Cafe.)

More release activity... Everything seems to be go for the April release of Trish Murphy's long-awaited debut solo CD, Crooked Mile. Disappointed when early sessions didn't go as well as expected, the Houston favorite started fresh at Austin's Hit Shack with ever-reliable producer Dave McNair. Hired guns included guitarist John Dee Graham, a founding member of the True Believers who's now with Kelly Willis; Joe Ely bassist Glen Fukunaga; ubiquitous keyboardist Michael Ramos; and drummer Rafael Gayol, whose credits include work with the BoDeans. Murphy's brother Darin also plays drums on a few tracks. As for the nearly finished product, early signs point to a stunner, but more on that later. Murphy performs Saturday at the Mucky Duck, if you want an advance taste of what to expect.

Occasional Murphy touring mate Slaid Cleaves has his own release to push, the stunningly austere Philo/Rounder debut No Angel Knows. Cleaves, a Maine native making a go of it in Austin, is a storyteller as much in tune with life's hidden humor as with its blatant misery. He opens for Peter Keane Saturday at Anderson Fair.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland