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Dead Hot Workshop
River Otis

You know about Dead Hot Workshop. You've heard 'em, you've seen 'em. It's the band most likely to succeed the Gin Blossoms as Tempe's top pop export. Indeed, many would argue that Dead Hot was the best band on Mill Avenue back before the Blossoms even bloomed.

With that in mind, one would think Dead Hot's major-label debut, River Otis, would buzz with a sense of justice. One would think there'd be an audible glee somewhere in the mix.

One would be wrong.
There's no hint of celebration here. The CD doesn't bristle with promise and there's none of the usual first-effort pep in the songs. River Otis is a somber piece of work. Its moods swing from reflection to full-on depression. The songs sound like they come from a band that grew old before it had a chance to be new and saw a little too much in the process.

In other words, River Otis has character. Lots of it. This is a remarkable disc.

Dead Hot dedicated its debut to three people, all of whom died early and sudden deaths. That sense of loss shadows every corner of the CD. It's especially evident in singer/guitarist Brent Babb's lyrics and affected vocals. Babb sings of "waking up dead" on each of the disc's first two songs ("Mr. S.O.B." and "E Minor"), and by the fourth cut, "Rise of Decline," he's wailing about "losing my sanity/Faster than my hair." The resulting white-boy muse is more disgruntlement than anger, and the six cuts on River Otis complement Babb's weariness with a tight, restrained sound. The songs also have been slowed considerably from earlier incarnations. Bassist G. Brian Scott and drummer Curtis Grippe never seem like they're in much of a hurry, and lead guitarist Steven Larson rarely breaks loose with anything more than a concise succession of chords. Occasionally, the band perks up for a blast of alternative bluster, most notably on "257." But Babb and his cohorts mostly keep things low-key and edgy.

Dynamics do come into play on the CD's best song, "G-Daddy," which starts as a soft waltz behind Babb's proletariat diatribe about "the Rockefeller years before the war," when the rich were busy "ripping the bones out of a poor man's back." Later, the guitars get louder and Babb's voice gets testy as he recalls how "the thirsty got thirstier down by the drain/Where they'd just as soon kill you if they thought it would rain." By song's end, everything's calm. Babb dreams of how one day the "rich will be all dead and gone/Their bones will be scattered all over my lawn/And all their trials and carryin' on/Will be gone when I cut the grass." It ain't Steinbeck, but Babb's raisins of wrath are effective, and they add up over the course of the EP. Indeed, there's not a single love song on the disc. Nothing but an aching acknowledgment that life isn't always as happy and peppy as a giggly three-minute pop song. Babb's hardly the first to stare at that truth, but at least he's been awake long enough to see it through.

The cover of River Otis shows Doug Hopkins meditating on a rock. He's one of the three names listed on the CD's dedication. Hopkins used to worry that Dead Hot was a better band than his own Gin Blossoms. He was wrong about a lot of things, but his judgment, in this case, was very much on target.--Ted Simons

The Black Crowes
(American Recordings)

There are about 687 more pubic hairs on the cover of this album than there are on Clarence Thomas' Coke can. Better that than another picture of Chris Robinson tarted up in Rod Stewart's old castoffs. Most people have a lot of problems with the Crowes' bell-bottom and feathered boa fashion show, and it does get repugnant at times. But if you're a kid looking for some escape from a world with AIDS and you want to party like it's 1972, you've gotta be willing to make sacrifices (rap, hard-core, punk, political correctness, etc).

Amorica's music, especially the set opener "Gone," sounds too vital to be confused with some museum piece. Naturally, critics are hauling out the Faces' comparisons again, but, excepting the Ian McLagenish electric piano on "She Gives Good Sunflower," you can just forget that summation. Besides, Robinson's phrasing sounds more like Paul Rodgers in his Free time than Rod the Mod. And unlike other retro rockers like Lenny Kravitz, there's not a single cut here that you can pinpoint to some classic-rock chestnut. So, to paraphrase a tip from the album's best cut, "Cursed Diamond," "unzip your pride, open yourself up wide." It's your patriotic duty, Amorica!--Serene Dominic

Butt Trumpet
Primitive Enema

The most imaginative things on Primitive Enema, besides the band's own "Parental Advisory--Lighten Up" label, are the excuses offered for not printing the lyrics to two of the tunes. For "The Grindcore Song": "They might entice you to do nasty things to yourself and to others and we don't wish to be held responsible for it, hail Satan." And for "I've Been So Mad Lately": "Bianca is unable to write the words down because she can't open her fists."

Among the lyrics the band does include are "Dead Dogs," which consists solely of the repeated phrase "I got dead dogs in my fuckin' garage." "Funeral Crashing Tonite" encourages doing just that, busting into a funeral parlor and hauling away somebody's dead loved one in a giant Hefty bag. Butt Trumpet even revives the popular trash bag's "Hefty, Hefty, Hefty! Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy!" campaign for background-vocal fodder.

This isn't great punk by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer more than a few yuks. Take the opening track "Clusterfuck," with its "I love you but I fuck your friends" refrain. On its own, little more than tired shock-punk. But add the sound of teenage cheerleaders yelling out "Clusterfuck!" like it's the latest toy from Whammo and you've got something. If that doesn't make you laugh, nothing will.--Serene Dominic

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic
Ted Simons