Amy Rigby's debut as a solo artist, 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife, was such a compelling tour de force that it seems impossible that a follow-up would not be as gripping. It's sad to report, then, that with Middlesence, Rigby seems to have hit the proverbial sophomore slump. What seemed quirky and charming the first time now seems kind of odd and lacking in direction. Rigby tries to prove that an older women can rock like a younger one can with the added appeal of experience, yet more often than not, Middlesence fails because that knowledge is expressed in eccentric ways that feel forced instead of natural. Take a couplet from "The Summer of My Wasted Youth": "Summertime in '83/the last time I took LSD/But listening to Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind." Especially outrageous are "Calling Professor Longhair" and "Laboratory of Love," in which Rigby tries out a chanteuse persona and her warble of voice, which at times can be a positive force behind her self-centered lyrics, just isn't up to the task. Rigby has already proven she can be a formidable songwriter, so one is liable to write off Middlesence as a stumble. Another effort like this, however, and she may be thinking of retirement.
2 Stars -- Jim Caligiuri
INDUSTRY AND THRIFT (SUGAR HILL)
With their fourth full-length, Industry and Thrift, their second album for Sugar Hill, Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin have once again added a significant chapter to the Big Book of American Music. Bolstering their bluegrass with a lazy shufflin' blues à la their Newton Boys soundtrack, Eastern European folk (fully instrumented by Rubinchik's Orkestyr), a Merle Travis rag, and some genuine plugged-in rockers that are sure to raise a few eyebrows, the Livers' grass is still blue as ever, the freewheeling pickin' songs still their greatest strength; "Brand New Hat" and "Honey I've Found a Brand New Way" roll by at breakneck speed, while the sing-along stomp "I'm Going Back to Mom and Dad" and the meandering "Jalopy" further show Barnes to be one of the most talented pickers of our time. The funny, plodding tuba-timed hickisms of "Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt" and the quiet, soulfully rendered "Anna Lee," which bookend the CD, are perhaps the strongest tunes on the album, showing that when it comes to banjo music (of any kind), now more than ever, you still can't beat the Bad Livers.
4 Stars --Christopher Hess
LA POINTE (ROUNDER)
Just being a Cajun band from Louisiana immediately burdens the musicians therein with heavy expectations; being the daughter of Dewey Balfa, one of the pillars of the genre, increases those burdens a hundredfold. Therefore, Christine Balfa's previous outing with her band, Deux Voyages, could only have been considered a failure, not because it was bad, but because it was merely competent -- and in Southwest Louisiana, being competent and 60 cents will get you a cup of coffee. With La Pointe, Balfa obviously went back and analyzed what could have caused that album to be so mediocre, and she figured it out: It was the studio. Cajun music doesn't belong in studios, it belongs in smoke-filled bars, beer-soaked festivals, and living room jams. She chose the latter, laying down these 14 tracks at her home last December, resulting in a warmer feel, full of the vibrant life that has defined Acadiana for the last 233 years. Now the triangle isn't merely percussion, it's a joyous clatter; the accordion isn't merely a melody, it's a crazed two-step; the fiddle isn't just playing notes, it's a mournful or giddy singer. People expect Dewey's ghost from this band, now they get it.
3.5 Stars -- Lee Nichols
CELEBRITY SKIN (DGC)
A few of the opening lines from Celebrity Skin: "Oh make me over," "I am so dumb," "Love hangs herself," "Crash and burn." You get the idea, and if you don't, Courtney Love continues in that painful, quasi-Freudian vein for much of this album's 12 tracks, slamming you over the head with what can only be called "ouch-pop." Love may have remade herself and her band in the four years since the last fusillade, but lyrically it's still the same old Hole, if a little less rough around the edges. What's the point? Pretty on the Inside wasn't, and neither is this, but Michael Beinhorn's slick, SoCal production (with five assists from Billy Corgan) is so far out in front that if it weren't for Love's perpetually disgruntled, razor blade and whiskey voice, you'd be hard pressed to make a comparison to the Hole of the Kurt Years. Much has been made of Love's chameleonic transformation from dirty doll diva to Versace fashion platter, and that carries over here as well. Whether anyone cares anymore is the question, but precious few other recent discs fit so well with a cherry-red convertible Mustang, tooling down the Pacific Coast Highway, and watching that hazy purple sun crash down over your left shoulder. End of the summer crunch-pop from the most enigmatic woman around.
3.5 Stars -- Marc Savlov
SONGS TO SAVE YOUR SOUL (SEASICK SAILOR)
Gretchen Phillips can crack you up and lull you away, but can she reclaim our collective soul from the clutches of the religious right? Songs to Save Your Soul attempts to do just that by focusing on the theme of spiritual redemption through love rather than fire and brimstone. "My flesh was meant to press the flesh of the one I love," sings Phillips with palpable joy in "I Can Hear the Angels Singing." "God told me softly to kiss your mouth, it's ordained from above." This self-released six-song local offering is a quaint, eccentric journey in 3/4 time that starts out heartbroken and ends up reconciled. Phillips pairs her own inquisitive songs with finely chosen covers such as Conway Twitty's "Hello Darling" and Buck Owens' "Together Again" to illustrate how we use the cycle of love to define ourselves. Though her perfectly deadpan register might seem out of place on such twangy tunes, Phillips pulls it off with left-field aplomb. This may just be the oldest story in the world, but it still bears re-telling so long as the storyteller's good.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
HEATER (CHECKERED PAST)
NORTH AMERICAN LONG WEEKEND (RED ANT)
Walter Salas-Humara certainly is trying to shed his rootsy image. Heater, the latest by the Silos, is a sonically ambitious outing for a band that has historically been content with plug (in) and play. The Silos, which at this point is just Salas-Humara and whoever he gets to work with him (this time, that includes Dave McNair and Chuck Prophet among others), take the underground route about half of the time and do some serious dinking with the intentionally low-fi, low-tech sounds prevalent in the indie world ("Front Porch," "Prison Song"). Salas-Humara's songs still have the same superb writing structure under them, on Heater they are just dressed up a bit differently. Former Silo Tom Freund has dressed down his stuff for his debut North American Long Weekend, the New York City native and brief Austinite putting together a collection that is equal parts Freedy Johnston and Mark Eitzel. It's not so much dark as it is moody and overtly introspective, and Freund is content to plod along at a nice, slow pace. Often, he drags the listener down too far before coming up, as on the somber "Business of Knowing" and the sober "More Than Necessary," and Freund's lethargic voice does have a slightly narcotic effect, but it fits the material so well that it's easy to settle into.
Heater: 3 Stars
Long Weekend: 2.5 Stars
DASH RIP ROCK
PAY DIRT (PC)
There's a telling line in Pay Dirt's bouncy crowd-pleaser, "Clown Down," in which guitarist-songwriter Bill Davis exhorts his circus girlfriend to "take off your greasepaint and let your clown-do down." For a band whose music has been more laughable than lyrical, those words are irony. Dash Rip Rock has been wearing clown suits for nearly 15 years, and the problem with dressing up is that when you take it off, people still want the joker; the closest they've come to a hit was the 1996 college-charting "Let's Go (Smoke Some Pot)." Enter producer/master skin-beater Fred LeBlanc, who just happens to be their former drummer and knows a little about the old presto-chango himself, having successfully ditched the rubber nose when he formed Cowboy Mouth. LeBlanc infuses Pay Dirt with radioactive muscle, but don't expect sing-a-long ballads and Triple-A rockers. With the one-two thump of opener "King Death" (dedicated to the late Country Dick Montana), it's clear that Dash knows their raucous turf well, so that by the time the re-recorded "String You Up" ropes you in, you know you're back safe in Dash Country; "String You Up" may be Dash's best shot at bridging the novelty of "Pot," filling the irreverent rocker slot many fans demand. And that might be the crux of it: demand and supply. Dash is straining at the leash and the fans are reining them in. If the audience loosens up, they'll find all the party parodies and barroom ballads they want, even if the clowns look a little funny without the makeup and wigs.
3 Stars -- Margaret Moser
BRING IT ON (VIRGIN)
Somebody over in the U.K. has finally rediscovered what Americans go for most with British bands: Take what we've got back to their shores, do it better, and sell it back to us. We've been falling for it for years now, so we should open our arms (and ears) wide for Gomez, who debut in the U.S. with Bring It On. The fivesome from north Britain, barely into their twenties, give musical tips of the hat to Dr. John, Captain Beefheart, and the Band while throwing in a bit of Beck and G-Love & Special Sauce to keep it updated. Take that mish-moshy, loose sound, throw in updated samples and loops plus a prowess for multi-instrumentalism and you've got Bring It On. The vocal duties, shared by Tom Gray and Ben Ottewell, give the whole album a disparate feel with tracks like the bluesy opener, "Get Miles," set against a more quirky, upbeat pop tune like "Whippin' Piccadilly." Textural and dynamic, Bring It On is one of the most innovative and unique records to come out of the U.K. this year. (Gomez play La Zona Rosa Saturday, October 10.)
3.5 Stars -- Leah Selvidge
KANON POKAJANEN (ECM)
Location, location, location. It's important in real estate, but it's paramount in music. Handel's Water Music without the Thames? Indian ragas in a shopping mall? Celtic fiddle without the pub? I don't think so. So picture this: 100ft.-high painted ceilings, statues of beheaded martyrs on the left, stained glass on the right, gargoyles perched in strategic corners, and soul-cleansing incense ghost dancing in the air. A sensual smorgasbord. That sound. Gorgeous natural reverb, full of enriching overtones. The aural presence in these medieval churches is so palpably huge that they were used to record Apocalypse Now's dead air segments (necessary for a film's depth of sound). These houses of the holy were also the inspiration for Kanon Pokajanen, vocal choir music based on the Greek-Russian Orthodox Church's Canon of Repentance and commissioned for the 750th anniversary of Germany's Koln Cathedral. Perhaps Arvo Part's most challenging composition to date, it took the prolific composer over two years to create Kanon Pokajanen. ECM's version captures the sensuous and majestic voices of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia (Part's homeland), and all 83 minutes, from the syncopated opener "Ode I" to the 11-minute outro, "Prayer After the Canon," swim in the deep and viscous bath of the cathedral's interior. Moving and powerful, Kanon Pokajanen may even give atheists a reason to believe in the Maker.
4.5 Stars -- David Lynch
With the release of Treasures, it's time that trumpeter/flugelhornist Humberto Ramirez be recognized universally as one of the finest musicians to come from Puerto Rico. He deserves to be, as does Luis Marin, the brilliant pianist that appears with him. Currently based in San Juan, Ramirez attended Berklee and L.A.'s Dick Grove School and has a thorough knowledge of jazz. A capable producer and composer/arranger, as his writing here indicates, Ramirez experiments with blending contemporary Afro-Cuban music and jazz with hip-hop and R&B styles, and has written for groups of various sizes and make-ups, including a string ensemble, a big band, and small combos. There are vocals on a few tracks, but it's the instrumental work that makes this an impressive disc. Ramirez demonstrates that he's an intense and very accomplished trumpeter with a warm, medium-sized tone. He does a lot of high note playing, but it makes sense; he's not showboating. Marin's one of the best Afro-Cuban pianists I've ever heard and one of the most unique. He's a far smoother, less percussive player than most in the genre, sometimes reminding one of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, but also very adventurous and unpredictable rhythmically. He paces his solos very well too; check out his spot on "Right Call," it's a masterpiece. As are these Treasures.
4 Stars -- Harvey Pekar
LO MEJOR DE LA VIDA (NONESUCH)
A significant figure in Afro-Cuban music from the Thirties through the Fifties, Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo, has been discovered again at age 90, and due to his considerable charm, humor, and musical accom-plishments, has achieved Revered Elder status. A master tres and guitar player, here he appears on armonico, a hybrid instrument containing features of both. He also played clarinet for some years in the band of Miguel Matamoros, one of the seminal figures in 20th-century Cuban music. Segundo received most attention, however, as a vocalist in the very popular Duo Los Compadres, in which he sang backup for Lorenzo Hierrezuello; hence his nickname Compay (short for compadre). He's written many fine popular songs, some of which are contained on this CD. Fourteen selections by a variety of writers including the great Ernesto Lecuona appear and are performed by some of Segundo's friends and associates; son Salvador appears on bass, playing armonico as well, and is the second voice throughout. Considering the elder Segundo's age, he's amazing, performing with vigor and accurate time and pitch. At times, his backup singing outshines the lead voice. From a musical standpoint, this may not be Segundo's most important recording, but it would do a man half his age proud.
3.5 Stars -- Harvey Pekar
Ozomatli takes it name from the Aztec god of dance, but they're more like Los Super Ten, a multicultural Los Angeles collective that use Latin rhythms to bring across a dizzying and bold mix of funk, soul, hip-hop, salsa, cumbia, and merengue. They're also perhaps the most overtly socially conscious major label collective since Rage Against the Machine, riding the lyrical line between activism and pacifism in a rally against racism, hate, and indifference. Yet what makes Ozomatli so remarkable and so unique is how cohesively they cover a broad spectrum of traditional and non-traditional stylings, able to quickly break out of Santana-style jams with a scratch from Cut Chemist's turntables or an old-school rhyme from Chali 2na. And while most of the verses jump back and forth between English and Spanish, Ozomatli typically breaks down language barriers with choruses compact and universally catchy -- from the opening "Como Ve" to "Donde Se Fueron," the album's horn-heavy centerpiece. Although a few songs could use some editing, and guest spots from David Hidalgo and Alfredo Ortiz are a bit superfluous for a band this big, Ozomatli and producer T-Ray (Ugly Americans, Helmet) have ultimately upped the ante for world music, crafting one world everyone can dance in. Super indeed.
4 Stars -- Andy Langer
MOMENTS AWAY (TRANCE SYNDICATE)
In their five-year existence, these Austin-to-L.A. transplants have waded knee-deep in both fuzz-pop and ambient dance rhythms. While their tendency toward genre-shifting always kept things interesting, Moments Awayis the first Furry Things outing that really hits a long-lasting stride. By not trying so hard to push the envelope, the new album ends up being much more cohesive and accessible than last year's Hedfones EP. The Furry Things still revel in the glory of sound-on-sound to the nth degree, but drifting back to traditional pop structures lends both strength and focus to the band's explorations into trance. As a result, "I Can Lie" and "This Machine" are transformed into alluring singles-in-waiting; their competing melodies conspire to pleasantly disorient you, while a subtle, decadent rhythm tempts you toward the slow-and-low groove. Meanwhile, bassist Cathy Shive plays the role of chanteuse and coos some of the sexiest lead vocals this side of "Justify My Love." The tranquilized funk of "Overload" harkens back to Kraftwerk and sets another high-water mark. Moments Away is a thoroughly unpretentious and enjoyable dance album for people who like to listen to music sitting down.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
WHERE BLUE BEGINS (BLIND PIG)
Where Blue Begins, guitarist Deborah Coleman's second release for California-based Blind Pig Records, finds Coleman plying a wary and weary (but still polished) take on the West Coast Blues, buoyed by a spot of soul and the occasional lyrical insouciance: "Ain't it funny, life's little jokes/ Thought you were gone for good, you were only gone for smokes." But while Where Blue Begins coasts along with relative ease, it never really peaks. Much of the blame belongs to Coleman's not-quite-ready-for-prime-time fretwork, a gap most obvious when she stacks herself up against the greats. On "Travelin' South," she attempts to invoke the ghost of Albert Collins, right down to the 72-bar solo and the Johnny B. Gayden bass line, but comes up far short; she similarly turns the Louis Jordan jump number "They Raided the Joint" into a painfully rote boogie. Truth told, Where Blue Begins is no worse than what passes for standard blues fare these days; regrettably, it's not much better, either.
2 Stars -- Jay Hardwig
THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (RUFFHOUSE)
Hip-hop history is rooted in battling MCs, and only six songs into her solo debut the Fugees' Lauryn Hill offers one of the game's smartest disses yet. "Come on baby, light my fire/ Everything you drop is so tired/ Music is supposed to inspire/ how come we ain't getting no higher?" she asks on "Superstar." And she sings the challenge too, something most MC's, male or female, simply aren't capable of. But Hill's not throwing stones from a glass house; her vision of hip-hop transcends the thirst for money and fame, perhaps because she's already found that with the Fugees. And indeed, Miseducation is downright inspirational. In fact, Hill's mere arrival is inspirational. She produced, wrote, and arranged the album herself and convincingly re-introduces nasty funk, slick soul, sultry R&B, and classic doo-wop to hip-hop just as effortlessly as her Fugees sidekick Wyclef Jean did for reggae and world music on The Carnival. And as well as the album flows, it also introduces one geniunely classic song: "To Zion," a song written for her infant son and featuring Carlos Santana. It's the year's most thoughtful and uplifting four and a half minutes, from one of the year's most compelling albums. The fire is lit. Lauryn Hill has arrived.
4 Stars -- Andy Langer
ALL ABOUT TOWN (WARNER BROS./E-SQUARED)
About halfway through "The Window Song," the opening track on the sophomore effort by Knoxville, Tennessee's V-Roys, it becomes obvious the quartet spent more time and energy producing this album than its E-Squared debut, Just Add Ice. That energy may have been slightly misplaced. The debut was more a roll-the-tape-and-let-'er-rip twangy rock album -- think the Beatles go to Tennessee instead of Hamburg to cut their teeth. Produced by Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, who also did the first album, All About Town is more of a consciously plotted creation. Missing isn't only the energy that gave Just Add Ice its spark, but also the "up yours" angst that gave the album its kick. As a result, All About Town has slower and more deliberate tracks like "Mary," "Hold on to Me," and "Sorry Sue"; the up-tempo numbers focus on the pop mechanics with the cutting aspects of the band's sound being shoved almost completely out of the picture. They do steal smartly, though; "Testify" borrows a bass line from Motown and "Arianne" is a Revolver-era Beatles song, right down to the backing vocals. Like most of the material here, there's a hook, but there's no knockout blow to the chin.
2.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
SWEET LIFE (ZERO HOUR)
Just like its bleak blue cover, blurring winter-bare trees into a cold, dark landscape, Sweet Life, recorded last January/February in the Catskills, is a murky, sometimes depressing affair that doesn't reveal itself until the last notes of the epic title track fade into the sound of falling rain. Depressing because it's neither as abrasively low-fi as Anders Parker's fierce solo debut, Man of Sin (released in 1996 under the Varnaline moniker), nor as viciously Crazy Horse as its eponymous follow-up --and nowhere near as beautifully austere as last year's A Shot and A Beer EP -- this New York trio's latest effort still manages to distinguish itself as another of its frontman's fertile song cycles. Between the haunting opener, "Gulf of Mexico," featuring Parker's longing falsetto, and the stunning closer, "Sweet Life," songs such as "Northern Lights" and "All About Love" might well evoke the Moody Blues, while a tepid tune like "Fuck & Fight" doesn't even try to live up to its name, but all it takes is one disarming number like "Saviours" to prove that Parker, his brother John, and drummer Jud Ehrbar know all about the Sweet Life, something understood only at the very end when good and bad balance out into a cohesive whole.
3 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez