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Sponge
Rotting Pinata
(Chaos/Sony)

You've heard the jaunty title track (possibly the only song in pop history to use a pinata as a metaphor for a cowboy's broken heart), the gripping "Plowed" (with its riveting "in a world of human wreckage" chorus), and the supercatchy "Molly" ("Sixteen candles down the drain/The draaaaiiiiinnnnnn") about a thousand times each on the radio, right? Well, after listening to all of Sponge's debut disc, you'll understand why those particular songs were chosen as singles.

Elsewhere on the album, the band seems to have soaked up too many outside influences: the Cure on "Miles" and Stone Temple Pilots on "Neenah Menasha," while the midtempo "Giants" and "Fields" could have been recorded by just about any hard-rock outfit. Additionally, singer Vinnie Dombrowski's sexy working-class growl hails from the same side of the garage as Social Distortion vocalist Mike Ness's deliberately flat and gravelly croak. Sponge fares best when it squeezes out the above-mentioned fast-paced singles, the album-opening "Pennywheels" (which intros with a moody, acoustic-guitar-driven verse that gives way to an even darker, churning chorus), and the echoey, untitled eleventh track. Porous but pleasing.

By Georgina Cardenas
Sponge will perform with Letters to Cleo and Ned's Atomic Dustbin on Saturday, July 15, at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-9333. Tickets cost $12.

Various artists
Music From the Motion Picture Bridges of Madison County
(Malpaso/Warner Bros.)

The tunes employed by the lusty but oh-so-soulful Robert Kincaid to woo his beloved Francesca in the film The Bridges of Madison County are among the lushest vocal tracks of the late Fifties-early Sixties. From the monumental baritone of Johnny Hartman to the catch-in-the-throat histrionics of Dinah Washington to the sassy cool of Irene Kral, this collection displays the impeccable taste of jazz lover-Bridges director-star Clint Eastwood, who also serves as album producer.

Ignore the sappy love theme (composed by Flirty Harry himself) and focus on these three wonderful voices. Although Dinah Washington didn't languish in obscurity, her songs gathered here are seldom-heard gems. Whether accompanied by a big band or a small ensemble, Washington soars with her unique phrasing and emotional warble. Hartman basso-profundos with a rumble as romantic as a foghorn cutting through a pea-soup San Franciscan night. Pity that the deep-voiced crooner never quite achieved Washington's notoriety; perhaps this compilation will resuscitate interest in the late Hartman's magnificent pipes (look for a current re-release of his legendary session with John Coltrane). The two Irene Kral selections are cool, jazzy reads that find her in the company of the hard-swinging Junior Mance Trio.

Unfortunately, Eastwood relies on just these three vocalists (not counting Barbara Lewis's period pop song "Baby, I'm Yours") rather than broadening his scope to include other artists from one of the most vital eras in jazz (e.g., Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown). Still, what's here is lovely. Old wine in a new bottle? Sure, but what a vintage!

By Bob Weinberg

Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill
(Maverick/Reprise)

On her U.S. debut (her third album overall), Jagged Little Pill, this Canadian singer-songwriter, formerly a child actor, weaves a series of seemingly autobiographical tales, setting them against a backdrop of lush techno-balladry. Morissette's certitude comes not so much from her voice, which teeters between a yodeling trill and an authoritative bellow, but rather from her songwriting, which spills over like hours of therapy. On "Forgiven," she laments growing up Catholic, as only a true recovering Roman can; meanwhile, "Hand in My Pocket" finds her proclaiming a contrary optimism, sighing, "I'm sane, but not overwhelmed/I'm lost, but I'm hopeful, baby/What it all comes down to is that everything's gonna be fine." On the MTV-friendly "You Oughta Know," Morissette waxes contemplative after her beau dumps her for a more mature woman, sounding more akin to a twelve-step veteran than a wide-eyed adolescent. Morissette hovers somewhere between virgin and vindicator, like a radio-ready cross between Dorian Gray and Drew Barrymore, which makes this Pill an easy one to swallow.

By George Pelletier

Jemini the Gifted One
Scars and Pain
(Mercury)

Whether it's the birth-to-death voyage of Notorious B.I.G. of the corny kung-fu melodrama of Wu Tang Clan, many current hip-hop albums are as consciously concept-driven as the most excessive "projects" of Seventies art rockers. Mostly, however, all the skits, inserts, answering-machine messages, intros, and outros that clutter up rap records don't add much to the mix. After all, hip-hop is still very much a singles genre, and despite massive album sales, rappers who can sustain listeners' interest over a dozen or more tracks remain few and far between.

Cheers, then, to Scars and Pain, the debut from long-time Brooklyn scenester Jemini the Gifted One. This mini-album consists of a mere seven songs, with tracks that range from okay to outstanding -- and with no filler. Making the most of limited space, Jemini sticks with the New York old- school sound he knows best, shifting midline between quick-fire raps and low-key singing. The brilliant opener, "Can't Stop Rockin' (Tribute)," is retro in style and content: To a bubbly bass line and beat sound, he namechecks the Fat Boys and Doug E. Fresh with the kind of playful singsong rhymes you seldom hear in the roughneck Nineties.

Not content to proffer one distinct rhyme style, Jemini trots out his Tribe Called Quest-like smooth side to trade lines with his Brand Nubian-like wild side, revealing a confidence and versatility not found in many rappers. In short, Scars and Pain is your healthy choice for '95: twice the flavor, with none of the fat.

By Roni Sarig

Butch Hancock
Eats Away the Night
(Sugar Hill)

Butch Hancock is the only member of the legendary early-Seventies trio the Flatlanders never to have found a mass audience. Joe Ely, adopted by the Clash for their late-Seventies U.S. tours, scored. Much more recently, Jimmie Dale Gilmore notched his niche in the singer-songwriter pantheon (1993 Grammy nomination + 1995 profile in the New York Times Magazine = niche notched).

Not so Hancock. A shame, because among the three he's the purest songwriter. Whereas Ely's music is pretty much meant to be taken as it is and Gilmore's work has earned him the "metaphysical" tab, Hancock is a metaphorical writer. "If I was a highway, I'd stretch alongside you/I'd help you pass by ways that have dissatisfied you," he sings in "If You Were a Bluebird," a song covered by Ely nearly ten years ago and given a splendid, spare re-treatment on this album. Those who know Hancock from previous releases know he is also a storyteller and a balladeer; songs such as "Welcome to the Real World Kid," "One Kiss," and the title cut ("Time has got this hungry mouth to feed/And it always bites off what it needs/But when it's had its fill of broad daylight/It just eats away the night") won't disappoint.

Gurf Morlix -- virtuoso sideman to Lucinda Williams among others A does double duty as guitarist and producer, with sharp but unobtrusive results. Along with Hancock's harmonica and the occasional appearance of an accordion or fiddle, Riley Osbourn's ubiquitous Hammond B-3 organ provides striking counterpoint to Hancock's vocals. His voice is remarkable, even when compared to his ex-bandmates' (and still-buddies'). While Ely's delivery is that of your basic straight-ahead Texas rocker, and Gilmore's reedy tenor yields lovely high-lonesome intimations of Hank Williams, Hancock's power is raw, a semi going by on the highway outside your motel room in the dead of night, its Dopplered moan penetrating the sheetrock and waking you up to the disturbing realization that you were dreaming about the exact same things you'd driven all day in order to forget.

By Tom Finkel

Celine Dion
The French Album
(Sony)

There is just no earthly reason why I should like this album. It's bubblegum pop. It involves drum machines. It is sung in French. And yet I can't quite bring myself to hate the thing. There's, like, three songs on the album that are actually ... kinda cool. The dozen tunes here were written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, who is described in press releases as the "Bob Dylan of France." For the present, I'll ignore this painful oxymoron, and simply note that the guy knows how to write a pop song. I'm not saying anyone should go out and buy The French Album. Heavens, no. But consider it as a gift for that loved one with adult-contemporary leanings. Okay, maybe I'm going a bit soft, but remember, Ze temps, zay are a'changing.

BY Steven Almond

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