Which makes writing this no piece of cake. As a card-carrying member of the Q cult, I want another At Yankee Stadium. Ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird once said of that 1978 album, "No band ever made less mistakes on any record," and he was right. The thing is damn near perfect, a genre-busting masterpiece.

Thus, it pains me to say that Mess Age--the band's first studio effort in five years--is no Yankee Stadium. So what's the problem? The virtuoso musicianship is there, and after 27 years (this incarnation for the last 20), the quartet plays together as few other groups can.

Yet you get the sense that NRBQ is trying a little too hard to maintain and/or propagate its image as an eclectic, kooky group of musical savants. The band can move from style to style, from avant-jazz to candy-pop, with jaw-dropping facility, yet what once came naturally now seems forced.

Cuts such as "Big Dumb Juke Box" and "Everybody's Smokin'" are interruptions at best, and "Spampinato," keyboardist Terry Adams' ode to bassist Joey's last name, is a laugh at live shows, but is best confined to them.

There are saving graces: Guitar megaforce Al Anderson's "A Little Bit of Bad" is about as perfect and pure as pop gets (almost as good as his "Riding in My Car" from 77's All Hopped Up), and "Nothin' Wrong With Me" is a great tribute to the slob-as-deity theory. The soft, breathy "Ramona" is a treat, and "Everybody Thinks I'm Crazy" and "Advice for Teenagers" prove that Adams and Spampinato can write songs equaled only by what Brian Wilson used to be able to do.

But I'm a fan. I still like this album, and I still love the band. I don't think there are four more talented players in any one group; I just wish they'd stop fucking around and get that across to everybody else.--Peter Gilstrap

Pavement
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
(Matador)

The only way Pavement could have outdone 1992's Slanted and Enchanted would have been to make a better album. And that's just what happened. Rain has something for everybody, including a fresh supply of hope for those who think indie rock is beginning to mean nothing more than bad metal.

The opener, "Silence Kit," sounds like Buddy Holly's "Everyday" produced by Alex Chilton during Chilton's deconstructionist period, which is a pretty wonderful thing to sound like.

Many of the songs on Crooked Rain lope along with the slightly uneven gait of a crippled hunchback (that's a positive comment). Guitar parts flit around lyrics both smart and oblique, delivered in Steve Malcomus' enchanted, Lou Reed-esque voice. Which should be good enough for just about anyone.

If it's not, check out the instrumental "5-4 = Unity"; imagine "Take Five" with a bridge by George Harrison. Then there's the Velvet-country feel of "Range Life" and a bit of noisy repetition in "Hit the Plane Down." Do yourself a favor; go trade in that Stone Temple Pilots CD and ask your friendly music clerk to find you Crooked Rain.--Peter Gilstrap

Willie Nelson
The Early Years
(Scotti Bros.)

To many, the "early years" of Willie Nelson mean nothing more than a lack of facial hair. Wake up and smell the teardrops, folks. The 14 lovely jerkers herein were recorded just before Willie signed to Liberty Records in 1962, and even at this stage, the strong, unique voice is there, along with Nelson's trademark acoustic-guitar plucking.

He's become a high-profile artist in the last couple of decades, acting on the big screen, dueting with fellow outlaws Waylon and Johnny, battling the IRS. The songs here, however, are simple in arrangement and feel, tales of broken love and woe. "December Days" even showcases Willie as a light-jazz balladeer.

The Redheaded Stranger rerecorded many of the cuts in later years (I Hope So" reached the country Top 40 in 69), yet these versions are special. Listen to the bottle-ready pain of "I Can't Find the Time," the gentle, shuffle-sway blues of "Everything but You," the Orbison-flavored working of "Some Other Time." This is traditional, early-Sixties-era country music. God love it.--Peter Gilstrap

Vijaya Anand
Dance Raja Dance
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

It's almost impossible to describe this CD--not just where to begin, but where to end. Dance Raja Dance is 11 tracks made up of the most disparate, bizarre and evocative sounds--not merely styles of music--to come out of the last two decades.

It is the Watts Towers of music.
Really, it is the south India film music of Vijaya Anand, and to use a worn phrase that should be resuscitated for this album, you've never heard anything like it. Anand's name translates to "victory" and "ecstasy," and, coincidentally, those are two of the main plot ingredients of Indian films, ingredients this music was designed to express. In case you didn't know, the country makes four times as many movies per year as Hollywood does.

Virtually all pop music in India is taken from films. There are no "rock stars," but instead professional, relatively faceless singers, hence the importance of a picture's musical director.

And Anand is godlike. Here are a few of the things he throws into the mix of his music: cheesy, Seventies synthesizer effects, programmed disco drums, funk bass lines, a car horn playing "La Cucaracha," Tower of Power-style horn parts, tablas, strings, mariachi salvos, Cuban percussion sections, grunting, chain-gang choruses, melodic licks swiped from New Wave songs, heavily reverbed vocals. Not in English, of course. Beyond that, you'll have to hear it for yourself.--Peter Gilstrap

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