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Tragically Hip
Fully Completely
(MCA)
By Steven Almond

We don't honestly expect this band's third full-length to score their deserved breakthrough, particularly if Americans prove as lazy and gullible as usual (did someone say "Donny Osmond comeback"?). But hey, Michael Jackson's face is still structurally sound. Anything's possible.

Less insistent than 1990's mind-bending Road Apples, this is a work of mood more than attitude. With no discernable loss of energy, the Hip's dual ax attack has been leavened with flourishes of dobro and acoustic guitar. Hard Folk, they'll be calling it soon. Whatever.

Singer Gordon Downie isn't much for rock cliches. Nix to failed relationships and pop politics. He's more likely to muse about a worn Air Force cap, or the logistics of dumping a corpse, or the hopeless feeling in a small town where "All you hear are the rusty breezes/Pushing around the weather-vane Jesus." That's just Downie A genius intense, rake irreverent, a front man with enough grizzled charisma to scare off the little girls, though he'd probably, given a shot, beg them to stay.

Of course, the Hip can still leave a mighty set of skid marks ("Locked in the Trunk of a Car," "100th Meridian"). On the album's half dozen blazers, Paul Langlois's backing guitar has grown only boggier, and the band's rhythm boys can put your Average White Butt A hey, wasn't that a Seventies band? A into ghetto-wag without grinding much elbow grease.

But what persists here is the riveting merger of Downie's contralto poetry with Bobby Baker's langorous fretwork. The tunes that resonate, that keep you up at night, are stripped bones, all marrow and melody. ("Pigeon Camera," for instance, which gives a pretty good sense of what R.E.M. would sound like with the help of extreme psilocybin.)

The Hip may never bust the Yankee move. But in the end, that ain't so tragic. At the 100th Meridian, they still outsell Madonna. Steven Almond

David Hole
Short Fuse Blues
(Alligator)
By Alex Gomez

When blues pioneer W.C. Handy first saw someone press a knife edge against guitar strings at a Mississippi Delta railroad station in 1903, he described the sound as "the weirdest music I ever heard." Since then, "bottleneck," or "slide," guitar has, of course, become a steady current coursing through the blues mainstream. And yet while many blues guitarists incorporate slide into their repertoire, few specialize in the style. David Hole is a slide-guitar specialist.

The evidence supporting Hole's case that slide alone is enough gets full presentation on the Australia native's debut recording, which has been out for a while, though you'd never know it from the lack of recognition. Sizzling with the type of modern Chicago blues most often heard on radio and television, Hole's thing is up-tempo, polished, and tightly produced.

Hole slides over, not under, the guitar neck. The story goes that an injury forced the bluesman to play slide "overhand" while recovering and, upon getting better, he continued with it. The approach gives Hole a unique sound, which may be why the tunes on Short Fuse Blues seem to stand out from the din of blues recordings currently being released.

"Dark Was the Night" is a glowing example of the slide style. On this instrumental cover, Hole chooses to interpret the piece on electric rather than acoustic guitar, as it was originally recorded by Blind Willie Johnson. Even so, Hole doesn't limit himself to blues tunes. He lays down a somewhat bizarre version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," for example, something W.C. Handy might think "weird" if he were around to hear this fresh and fully magnificent slide guitarist.

Digable Planets
Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
(Pendulum)
By Joey Seeman

If you're one of those addicted to this Next Big Thing's "Cool Like Dat" single, remind or inform yourself that Digable Planets are not a one-trick phoney. This is a breakthrough band, like Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest before them, marking a brave new trend in rap. By infusing their hip-hop with jazz samples (from Art Blakey to Miles Davis), the Planets have injected their chosen art form with new life, resulting in an album easily digested in one listen, but worth plenty more. Interlocking samples, fat beats, and unusual vocals add up to a smooth flow all the way through.

Main lyricists Butterfly and Ladybug provide a perfect complement to one another, and their use of Beat Generation slang fits like, right on, daddy-o, with the music behind that. "Cool Like Dat" has vaulted Digable Planets into a bright spotlight, and if people are really tuned in, they'll check out the whole slab. Here's your relief from the hard-core gangsta copycatting currently flooding the planet.

Bettie Serveert
Palomine
(Matador)
By Rat Bastard Falestra

This Dutch band, made up of former members of De Artsen A guitarist Peter Visser and bassist Herman Dunskoeke A plus vocalist Carol Van Dijk, creates here a timeless masterpiece of great songs possessing simple warmth. With an unexpectedly American sound, Van Dijk's vocal lines weave and sigh along with her guitar. "Leg" is warm introduction, the title track is most impressive, and then "Kids Allright" kicks it with some up-tempo hard rocking. "Brain-Tag" is a song so crafted even Neil Young should take notice. And all that is just the build up for "Tom Boy," the single that lives up to anything that's come out of Athens, Georgia, recently. "This Thing Nowhere" is far more focused than its title suggests, plus there's a cover of Sebadoh's "Healthy Sick" and the finale, "Sundazed to the Core," to deal with. Get this album and ride it up to red in your VU meters.

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