Blow Pops
American Beauties
(Get Hip)

There was an old Saturday Night Live joke between Chevy and Gilda that went like this: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Babs' uvula." "Babs' uvula who?" "I don't know, Babs . . ."

That's sort of the way I feel about this album. Not because it's bad, cause it isn't. It's just that the Blow Pops have crafted such a perfect carbon copy of Mersey Beat excess (with nips of the best of American cheese pop: Cowsills, Cyrkle, families DeFranco and Partridge, Emmit Rhodes) that it's like listening to the Rutles, for Chrissakes!

These guys are shameless. There are pristine, round-we-go-the-sun-is-shining dollops of harmony copped straight from "Feelin' Groovy (The 59th Street Bridge Song)" and broad strokes of--dare I say it--Peter & Gordon in virtually all of the 16 cuts. Trying to say one song stands out is like trying to differentiate between teeming, consecutive mouthfuls of various brands of sugar. The Pops even sing with British accents--and they're from Milwaukee! What the hell, it worked for the Byrds. If this stuff is up your alley, you'll be hanging out the "Do Not Disturb" sign at home with the stereo cranked; you'll be driving absolutely nowhere with a smile on your face, rewinding til the motor burns out. But then again, I don't know, Babs.--Peter Gilstrap

Raw Fusion
Hoochiefied Funk
(Hollywood Basic)

Homies just don't know when to let a bad thing rest. Raw Fusion is yet another rap group that fuses nothing but sexing females and weak beats. Ever since Dre and Death Row labeled sisters "hoes" and "bitches," everybody and his mother have hopped aboard the bandwagon. You can now officially add Raw Fusion to your list.

I don't know, maybe it's me, but if I hear one more Casio-keyboard-sounding bass line or referral to a sister as a "skeezer," I just might kill myself. Although much props go out to Money B and D.J. Fuse for a valiant effort, at times the music sounds as if your favorite Digital Underground CD is skipping on about every measure of melody. I'm going to make like the Pharcyde and pass this one by.--Danielle Hollomon

Johnny Cash
American Recordings
(American Recordings)

His voice is as familiar as the sound of a train passing in the night. The songs of prison and pills are the stuff--perhaps literally--of yore. He is the only living human to be a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once upon a time, he was part of the Sun Records family that included Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins.

And now he is a label mate of Slayer, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Black Crowes.
Yes, Johnny Cash is under the wing of Rick Rubin, wild-man boss of the American Recordings label. What have the two of them come up with? Nothing shocking at all, really. Apart from a couple of live tracks, Rubin sat Cash down with an acoustic guitar and a microphone (in Rubin's living room and Cash's cabin) and let him have at it. Which may be somewhat shocking, after all. The essence of Cash is revealed without band or studio tricks: a simple, moving voice that, if anything, is more powerful now for the depth and emotion the years have brought to it. The performances are subdued and graceful, but never without nuances of pain and anger that fuel the 62-year-old's best work. No, don't think Johnny's doing Prince covers or something; the titles tell all: "The Beast in Me," "Redemption," "Why Me Lord," "Let the Train Blow the Whistle." There is an almost religious quality to American Recordings, which fits; you'd be hard-pressed to find Cash preaching his gospel in a more convincing light.--Peter Gilstrap Lush

Split
(4AD)

Listen to Lush and you'll feel as if your radio dial is stuck between an alternative and a New Age station, with no hope of zeroing in on either. No matter how exciting the tracks start off, whenever those airy-ethereal vocals glide in, it makes you think of the Singing Nun on Thorazine.

"Please let me start screaming," vocalist Miki Berenyi gasps at one point, but the larynx-shredding never happens. It doesn't matter whether she's singing about missing the deceased or being tied up by an abusive lover, every syllable is delivered with Bananaramalike disinterest. When she tries to rock out in a normal human register on "Blackout," the results are laughable, like Jon Anderson singing Black Flag. This music is all about distance, and the more distance you put between Split and yourself, the happier you'll be.--Serene Dominic

Varga
Prototype
(Zoo)

The Velveeta syndrome has finally caught up to speed metal with this overproduced, Megadeth-meets-Extreme collage of cornball tunes. Still, the album is chock-full of guilty pleasures, even though it's also loaded with predictable hooks and melodies that are too tight to let one piece of distorted fuzz get out of place. The mysterious, superbright acoustic sound on "Unconscience" and "Cast Into the Shade" is the band's most original submission, and the heavy use of double-bass drums does not go unappreciated. Also, Joe Varga is a talented lead singer, whether he's rapping, shrieking or harmonizing.

Much of the song material is not, however, just comic book, it's video game. Literally. Among the usual thank-yous microprinted on the inset, Varga credits both Sega and Super Nintendo as inspirations. It shows. Taking the well-worn complaint that TV news is the prime messenger of all those bad thoughts in Junior's head, "Film at Eleven" offers an immature and ham-handed condemnation. "Greed" comes off as supremely hypocritical given the band's own obvious quest for success. Looking closely, all the lyrics seem as distant and contrived as the plot of your average TV miniseries.--Ray Stern

GangStarr
Hard to Earn
(Chrysalis)

Out of the gritty urban landscape of brownstones and battlefields comes GangStarr's fourth album, Hard to Earn. D.J. Premier orchestrates phat beats of dark, ghetto symphonies while Guru delivers with his dead-on monotone voice that hypnotizes you with mad lyrics.

As the title suggests, credibility and respect in hip-hop are hard to earn, as GangStarr shows in autobiographical tracks such as "The First Step," a story of wanna-be rappers using Guru as a steppingstone to their own careers. This isn't another Jazzmatazz--a Guru solo effort that was more jazz ambiance than rap. GangStarr continues to reach a higher level of ground and still manages to be the ill soul brothers with the skills that pay the bills.

Hard to Earn has breathed new life into an otherwise creative decline in rap. This is a flavor to savor.--Danielle Hollomon

Gigolo Aunts
Flippin' Out
(RCA)

If you want to know what the inside of my car has sounded like for the last month, go get a copy of Flippin' Out.

The Aunts (the name's derived from a Syd Barrett song) have been playing together since their junior high days in Potsdam, New York, in the late Seventies, a good time to soak up the raw, seething power pop that was allowed to grow and fester throughout our great nation back then. We're talking Cheap Trick, the Feelies, the Shoes--hell, Billy Squier and all the rest from New York to L.A., and apparently the boys in the Aunts were listening.

Check out the skyscraping balladry of "Figurine," "Where I Find My Heaven" or "Ride On Baby Ride On," and the crystalline bubblegum of "Mrs. Washington," "Gun" and "Pin Cushion." These are the kinds of songs that get stuck in the part of your brainpan reserved only for top-drawer stuff: Beatles licks, Big Star hooks, Brian Wilson harmonies. Make room for the Aunts. As they say in the world of beer, it just doesn't get any better than this.--Peter Gilstrap

Paul Weller
Wild Wood
(London)

Traffic
Far From Home
(Virgin)

Winwood, not Wild Wood, would have been a more apt title for this second Paul Weller solo outing. From the whirling circles on the cover art to the flutes, the jazz-rock beats, the incessant wah-wah pedals and the white-soul-man vocals, it's obvious that Weller is under a posthypnotic suggestion that he is the driving force behind Traffic. At least it's better than last time out, when Paul thought he was David Clayton-Thomas.

Just what is Weller's problem, anyway? In trying not to repeat what he did with the Jam, all he has succeeded in doing is make music that displays none of his former strengths. If the title "Has My Fire Really Gone Out?" doesn't say it all, then the Bob Seger-ish arrangement should leave little doubt. Since reunions are the thing this year, maybe Paul ought to fish through the pockets of his old mod suits and try to locate Bruce Foxton's phone number again. Not surprisingly, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi fare far better with the Traffic blueprints. Far From Home is an interesting study in contrasts.

Those tracks with optimistic titles such as "Riding High" and "State of Grace" sound like Winwood's predictable solo work, riddled with lazy synth sounds too dated even for re-creating the CHIPs theme. Songs with downtrodden titles like the exquisite "Far From Home" and "Nowhere Is Their Freedom" are filled with luscious Hammond B3 organs, flutes and soulful Stevie vocals, thus sounding (natch!) like pay-dirt Traffic. And note how the boys diplomatically handle the problem of Jim Capaldi looking like a pitted prune compared to the still-youthful Winwood--they print thumbnail-size photos of the duo wrapped in fog and haze! A shrewd return.--Serene Dominic

Various Artists
Tibetan Buddhist Rites From the Monasteries of Bhutan
(Lyrichord)

Naysayers out there who ascribe the recent popularity in Gregorian chants to blatant New Age bandwagoning, who scoff that it's all merely another form of watery, ambient background music dressed up as an intellectual soundtrack, had better take a listen to this: four volumes of sacred rituals and dances, chants, folk and instrumental offerings from monks, nuns and various other holy persons, recorded live in Bhutan.

This is fearsome, shattering, transcendent, downright gripping stuff (these are Western ears writing, remember), difficult to take in large doses.

Volume one showcases the monks of the Drupka Kagyupa Order (which translates to the School of Oral Transmission of the Druk Sect); they chant, and produce lengthy, low, moaning passages on horns and drums made from human thigh bones and skulls, temple bells, gongs and cymbals.

I don't mean this with any Ugly American, callous disrespect, but I defy you to listen to this alone in the dark.

Perhaps a bit more accessible is volume four, Tibetan and Bhutanese Instrumental and Folk Music, much of it played on a Dramnyen, somewhere in the aural neighborhood of a simplified sitar. Even track three, which consists solely of someone tuning the thing, is mesmerizing. This is obviously not for everybody, but those willing to actually sit down and give these ancient sounds their due will not be disappointed.--Peter Gilstrap

Ignition
Complete Services
(Dischord)

For all those Dischord fans out there, here's a collectible bit of D.C. hard-core, all the music Ignition released--a 27-cut value--in its nearly three years of existence. And for those keeping score, "this will be the one and only CD release by the defunkt band," according to the press release.

This is pretty much classic, angry stuff … la old Teen Idols and Minor Threat, punk rock that even your older siblings can enjoy. Though Ignition's vocalist is Alec Mackaye, brother of Fugazi's Ian, things are a lot more straightahead than the manic, passive-aggressive sound that has been the hallmark of Fugazi's music. Tunes such as "Throttle" and "Wrenching" are plenty snotty and visceral, and a cover of the Vibrators' "Keep It Clean" stands out. The package includes a swank booklet of fab pix and fave lyrics, too.--Peter Gilstrap Brand New Heavies

Brother Sister
(Delicious Vinyl)

Yesterday is now. The groove never dies, it just mutates into something better. That something better is Brother Sister, the brand-newest album by the Brand New Heavies.

Put away your mom's and pop's vinyl of the Temptations' Psychedelic Shack; you won't need it. Brother Sister is a soulful stroll down memory lane. While N'Dea Davenport's neosoul vocals are reminiscent of early Motown R&B swing, the Heavies boast an irresistible hip-hop/funk sound that is decidedly jazzy. This album will seduce any easy-listening buppie or yuppie into a retro-Seventies state of mind. Funk, soul, jazz, peace, love and joy, it's all relative. Check this one out.--Danielle Hollomon

Godspeed
Ride
(Atlantic)

Ride is one hell of a ride, a noisy, brash and brutal assault of alternative thrash, to be exact. One interesting riff flows effortlessly into another with boot-stomping, chest-bursting energy, dragging the listener, zombielike, into a dark world of pessimism, broken homes and addiction. Great guitar leads add the only light in this subterranean adventure.

Tunes such as "Abstract Life" and "Houston Street" spew forth with a cynical, high-viscosity rawness reminiscent of old Suicidal Tendencies, but with more sheer power and emotion. Vocals are throaty, somewhat punkish, always threatening to go flat, yet not without a touch of black humor and wicked indifference. Every song reveals a diagnosis of mindless despair and hopelessness--all supposedly based on singer-lyricist David Blanchet's life experience. On the subject of hate, for example, he justifies giving in to his darker emotions because he's a human being, and, after all, "It sure beats self-pity." Bummer, dude.--Ray Stern

Violent Femmes
New Times
(Elektra)

New Times sucks! No, you haven't turned to the Letters page by mistake. It's the Violent Femmes' new album that's drawing raspberries. Lately, the Femmes have come down with a dangerous strain of They Might Be Giants-itis. The symptoms include squandering perfectly good songs with "aren't we clever and kooky" arrangements and sticking in stuff like the Mission: Impossible theme for no apparent reason. It makes you wish the band would go back to its busking-on-the-street approach more often.

The truly fun moments here, like "Don't Start Me on the Liquor" and the biting commentary on last year's Earth Summit, "Jesus of Rio," make the sophomoric stuff seem even more disappointing. And it's really too bad the title track isn't up to snuff, either. Still, with choice lyrics like "Something is foul in the state/You can be sure that a writer is not far behind," the editorial staff may be singing this one in the halls for months to come.--Serene Dominic

Swell
41
(American Recordings)

Here is that rare recording that demands that you accept it on its own terms or not at all. Climb up the decrepit staircase on the cover (sound effects for such a trip are thoughtfully provided on the CD) and find yourself transported to the place where Swell hatches its unique blend of acoustic and distorted slide guitars, heavy rehearsal-room drums and almost conversational vocals. The closest you could come to describing this album is Dinosaur Jr. with Luna vocals, but even that's not accurate enough. Seek this strange recording out, and be on the ground floor of something really Swell.--Serene Dominic

Van Morrison
A Night in San Francisco
(Polydor)

The first thing they teach you in Rock Criticism 101 is that you've gotta love Van Morrison with all your heart and soul. And what's not to love? Sure, he may look like the dumpy guy in My Dinner With Andre these days, but he's been the only Sixties giant besides Neil Young who has arguably produced some of his best work in recent years.

This slick, double live set breaks little new ground, but includes plenty o' cover songs--some fully realized versions, some just vamps tacked onto the end of other songs. Gracious to a fault, Van introduces his band members more times than Sinatra without a TelePrompTer. He even lets them perform whole songs by themselves, which will come as a disappointment to those who purchased this CD expecting to hear Van sing "You Make Me Feel So Free" and "Beautiful Vision." Another minor gripe: Do we really need another version of "Moondance," especially one that sounds more like Merv Griffin swinging out with Mort Lindsay and the Orchestra?--Serene Dominic

Angelfish Angelfish
(Radioactive)

Picture Patti Smith dropping her Rimbaud references to sing Til Tuesday's material and you get this impeccably smart pop album that never pretends to be anything but. Angelfish has enough sense to throw in some twist whenever it starts sounding a little too corporate. This maiden effort was produced by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, although Mike Chapman probably could've done the same job, and Angelfish would've only had to pay one fee.--Serene Dominic

Huey Lewis and the News
Four Chords & Several Years Ago
(Elektra)

This year, it seems that everyone bereft of new ideas about how to jump-start his or her stalling career chose to do an album of cover songs. Vintage rock n' roll gets the nod here, with Huey and the boys recording things like "Blue Monday" and "Your Cash Ain't Nothing but Trash" live in a studio, utilizing old microphones and recording techniques. Although there might be little point to rerecording "Shake Rattle and Roll," the rest of the song selection indicates that Huey's heart is in the right place. But this can hardly qualify as a solid career move unless the group's gearing itself up to be a bar band again.

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