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Chris Smither
Happier Blue
(Flying Fish)
By Bob Weinberg

With just guitar and foot, Chris Smither held a tent full of Riverwalk Blues Festgoers in thrall. No easy task, particularly following the electric performance of the Kinsey Report on the main stage. Smither's voltage comes not from amps, but from inside, fueled by personal demons and the need to express and exorcise them. The blue-hued guitarist's debut album for Flying Fish, Another Way to Find You, captured this intensity, featuring Smither live and alone. This follow-up, though no less confessional, puts the singer-songwriter in front of a band, presenting new challenges for his idiosyncratic style of play, while daring his sidemen to catch up with his lightning phrasing ("I never needed nothin'/Like I ever needed knowin' I needed you," he tongue-twists. Whew!)

Saxophone, bass, and violin add poignant and plaintive counterpoints to Smither's own introspective and often quirky vocals. Uptempo numbers such as the title track, a rave-up cover of Little Feat's "Rock and Roll Doctor," and "Memphis in the Meantime" are spright, gently rollicking tunes that feature Smither's strong and distinctive acoustic fretwork -- never flashy, but never fading into pure rhythm either -- along with his boot-as-percussion stamping. Ballads such as the memorable "Killin' the Blues" ("Somebody said they saw me/When I was swingin' the world by the tail") and "Magnolia" are enriched by subdued and thoughtful bass work. Smither's voice, as usual, is the sound of regret and heartbreak and disappointment and fear of loving too deeply: "I was sad and then I loved you and it took my breath/Now I think you love me and it scares me to death/I lie awake and wonder/I worry, I think about losin' you/I don't care what you say/ Maybe I was happier blue." Listeners will definitely be happier that Smither is blue.

4 Non-Blondes
Bigger, Better, Faster, More
(Interscope)
By Greg Baker
I'm slow but I'm not stupid.

I first heard the Non-Blondes months ago, when Interscope sent out an advance cassette. Then the label called and said the album was on hold, that it wouldn't be released for some time. It hadn't made much impression on a cursory listen so I promptly forgot the band existed.

The other day my brother Chuck called me. "Bro, you heard the 4 Non-Blondes?" Um, I think I remember something like that. "Bro, check it out. Now!"

I checked it out, then checked it out again. And again and again and it's still burning the heads of my player. Vocals as rangeful and driving as Joan Armatrading ("Superfly"), back-alley blues riffing ("Pleasantly Blue"), acoustic-but-edgy bedside balladeering ("Drifting"), funk-me-like-a-dog explorations ("No Place Like Home"), and more of not-the-same.

And then there's "What's Up." It's songs like this that send bands to an institution. An institution like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Showstopper. Heart stopper. Soul saver. You must hear this, sooner or later or eventually.

I'm happy (slow, maybe a little stupid, but happy) that I heard it. Then again, this means I owe Chuck a major payback favor.

The Rippingtons
Live in L.A.
(GRP)
By Bob Weinberg

I want to hate the Rippingtons. I want to hate them with every fiber of my Miles Davis record collection. And yet, hating the Rippingtons for not being straight-ahead jazzers is like hating Jell-O for not being ice cream: both offer sensual pleasures, although one is pure sugar water.

An equally guilty pleasure is the band's latest disc.
Led by guitarist and chief songwriter Russ Freeman (all ten compositions are his), the Rips weave lush soundscapes with shimmering percussion and congas that remind you more of a pleasant afternoon around the pool than tropical rain forests or dense jungles. But that's not a bad thing A hell, even Ornette Coleman probably cooled out in a chaise longue reading Cosmo from time to time.

The musicianship -- as well as the production values of this recording, which you will forget was performed in front of an audience -- is all topnotch, from Freeman's studio-perfect riffs to Kim Stone's surprisingly funky bass lines (it's the bottom, along with a Tower of Power-style horn sec, that keeps the band from sinking too deep into banality). Lending that airy puff-pastry sound popularized in the Seventies by groups such as Weather Report and Spyro Gyra is sax and EWI player Jeff Kashiwa, who wouldn't know a blue note if it sauntered up to him wearing shades and a fedora.

To say the Rippingtons represent everything that's wrong with jazz today is to admit that they are, indeed, playing jazz. They ain't (no matter what the kid at Spec's tells you). Does jazz have to be inaccessible musical masturbation by cats who couldn't care less whether you understand what they're laying down without first poring over the liner notes? No. Does jazz have to inspire you to make love, hit somebody, cry in your over-priced well drink? Darned tootin'. Invest in anything by Miles and leave the Rips to the rubes. Theirs is "jazz" for Jell-O eaters.

Billy Idol
Cyberpunk
(Chrysalis)
By Greg Baker
Poseur.

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