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Bruce Hornsby
Hot House
(RCA)

Since making his baby-grand entrance on the music scene a decade ago, Bruce Hornsby has released a handful of softly melodic albums, most notably The Way It Is, which he recorded with his group, the Range -- it earned them a 1986 Grammy Award as Best New Artist. Now, after honing his skills as a songwriter (with Don Henley on the song "The End of Innocence") and a musician (as touring keyboardist with the Grateful Dead), Hornsby has gone from Saturday-night jams to Sunday-afternoon jazz with his second solo venture, Hot House. And while his lack of range isn't a problem, his lack of inspiration is.

Hornsby's music has always been firmly anchored in his right-handed piano prowess, deftly stirring up any song with the flick of a finger or a progressive chord. Problem is, you can't build every song around this premise, and Hornsby seems to suffer from a nervous twitch. Cuts such as "The Changes" and "The Longest Night" are likable enough, just not terribly memorable. And even with guest turns by Pat Metheny (guitar), Bela Fleck (banjo), and the late Jerry Garcia (also guitar), the eleven tracks, all written by Hornsby, seem to blur into one long jazz workshop (must be the Dead influence). As a music professor of mine once told me, "There's a fine line between good jazz improvisation and Chinese water torture." Drip.

By George Pelletier

James McMurtry
Where'd You Hide the Body
(Columbia)

"You say you need a ray o'light/Had enough of my blinding insight," sings the narrator of "Rayolight," one of the least bleak cuts on James McMurtry's new album. Images of light and sight A or the lack thereof -- recur throughout the dozen songs on this collection, McMurtry's second since his critically acclaimed 1989 debut, Too Long in the Wasteland. Not that there's all that much to see. Though rich in precise detail, these songs don't so much deal with what's there as they address what has been lost, or what is being concealed. McMurtry's settings are desolate, his characters either alone or engaged in some sort of isolated conflict. Often that battle is with the past, "the blindness of youth" devoid of satellite dishes and central air but flush with Sunbeams and El Caminos, Joe Willie Namath scoring from seven yards out, and that fortunetelling 8-ball toy that sometimes answered your question with "Reply hazy, please try again."

All of which makes for a comfortable fit with Don Dixon's production, more varied and accessible than the rhythm-heavy signature of John Mellencamp that dominated McMurtry's first two albums. Pieces such as "Off and Running," "Rachel's Song," "Levelland," and "Lost in the Back Yard" come together well, the last of which contains the gifted songwriter's stunning representation of disorientation: "I woke up in a strange world/I can aptly describe/It's like the streets of a town where I lived/When I was too young to drive/It all looks so familiar/But I can't find my way/I must have got lost in the back yard/When I went out to play." But the title song is by far the album's strongest work, the demise of a relationship reduced to a murderous metaphor, the narrator having finally reached the juncture where the ugliness must be confronted. Not head-on, mind you, but obliquely -- as it inevitably is in life.

Occasionally, though, McMurtry's searing vision gets waylaid. "Iolanthe" leads off the record with a Southern Gothic mood enhanced by, of all things, a tuba. But in her struggle to overcome an upbringing by a pair of alcoholics, the song's heroine inspires pity, no more. And intimate details such as "I can tell your footsteps on the stairs/From three flights up/I know the jingling of your keys" can't save "Down Across the Delaware," whose aim is skewed by cliche.

With his nose adhering to the grindstone, maybe McMurtry failed to discern a tendency toward repetition that, with the added weight of his monotone, tends to accumulate until it becomes, well, monotonous; some of this Body's parts are virtually indistinguishable from others. To the point where "Rachel's Song" is merely a wintertime version of "Off and Running." And though it sounds real good in "Off and Running" when McMurtry sings, "I somehow must have missed it/I never knew I was blind/Repeat it real slow/So I'll get it this time," he is, in a way, hoisting himself by his own petard.

By Tom Finkel

Filter
Short Bus
(Reprise)

For their debut album, Short Bus, Filter -- vocalist-songwriter Richard Patrick and computer programmer Brian Liesegang -- have put their pedigrees to good use (both have worked with nine inch nails in touring or production capacities). Beginning with the first single, the menacing and atmospheric "Hey Man, Nice Shot," the record rumbles with riffs reminiscent of various hard-rocking bands. For example, Jane's Addiction-style vocals on songs such as "So Cool" stand next to churning Ministry-like guitars on "Under," while "Dose," "Spent," and "Gerbil" carry bits and pieces lifted from everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Scorpions to White Zombie to Billy Idol. And yet despite this proclivity for tapping into some of heavy rock's cheap conventions, the whole remains satisfying for its sheer intensity and unrelenting fury. Patrick's vocals have that telephone-call-from Hell effect, at once distant, detached, and angry; the fact that he sounds about sixteen years old makes them all the more disturbing. However, amid all this highly structured chaos and marvelous noise, one interlude of restraint: A ballad called "Stuck in Here" is probably the most powerful song here, a woeful lamentation right up there with Nirvana's "All Apologies" and NIN's "Hurt." Lyrically, the band has yet to mature, still too concerned with rhyming than with creating vivid images. But overall Short Bus crashes and burns brilliantly without ever hitting any bumps.

By Georgina Cardenas

Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five
(Passenger/Caroline)

In the great tradition of the rock guitar hero comes Ben Folds, pianist-singer for a guitarless trio from North Carolina called the Ben Folds Five. Like the best fiery ax men, Folds commands and fuels his small, tightly wound ensemble with an authoritative, nearly virtuosic style that borrows from everywhere but lends new inspiration to -- and insight into -- his instrument's possibilities: He's the Jimi Hendrix of the baby grand. Folds's frenetic keyboarding eclipses old-time styles (from honky-tonk to Jerry Lee Lewis rag), and he outplinks contemporary megastars such as Elton John and Billy Joel while sifting them both through the mondo hammerings of classic pop-loving alternative 'boardmen such as Todd Rundgren and Squeeze's Jools Holland.

To complement Folds-the-pianist's clean and bright ivory tinkerings, Folds-the-singer's clear and dynamic tenor swirls through Folds-the-songwriter's capably crafted sugar-pop gems. "Philosophy" starts with a rolling Joel-like intro before slipping into a Rundgren-ish verse and chorus -- complete with the perfect Beatles-esque harmonies of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee -- then breaks out in an overdriven piano quote from Gershwin in the climactic solo. "Underground" Sgt. Peppers us with faux theatrics, then plunges into a soul-gospel groove about the joys of the alternative rock scene. "Uncle Walter" is a character sketch the Kinks' Ray Davies wishes he'd written but couldn't; "Boxing" is an imagined confab between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell that Tom Waits wishes he'd written but wouldn't. The rest of Ben Folds Five's debut does what any timeless summer record should: Makes you feel sunny enough inside to last all through the year.

By Roni Sarig

Merle Haggard
A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or My Salute to Bob Wills)

(Koch)
When Merle Haggard made this record 25 long years ago -- though in country-music terms it might as well have been made in another century -- he was struggling to reconcile his hippie-hating persona with his leftist, Woody Guthrie leanings. Haggard was the first real Seventies country outlaw, an Okie from Muskogee who waved a flag in one hand and his parole notice in the other. But straight down the middle, Haggard was (still is, for that matter) a man for whom history was something of the present. Because he was an anachronism himself, when Haggard rounded up a heap of players from Bob Wills's old band, the Texas Playboys (including Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Eldon Shamblin on guitar), to cut a tribute to Wills, it was less an exercise in nostalgia (Wills was still alive at that point) than it was an affectionate inevitability.

Available for the first time on CD, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World is an amazing, reverent combination of Haggard and Wills. The band sounds much as it did throughout the 1930s and 1940s, swinging its way through "San Antonio Rose" and "Stay a Little Longer" and "Corrina Corrina," but in front of them is a singer with a softer touch and a gentler voice. Haggard captures what was essential about Wills's music -- a big-band sound that could fill a honky-tonk, polish and shine revealed underneath sawdust and horseshit -- and without changing it a bit. Even when he leaves the original arrangements intact, he somehow makes it all his own.

By Robert Wilonsky

Teenage Fanclub
Grand Prix
(DGC)
Poole
Alaska Days
(spinART)

Like their stylistic forebears (Raspberries, Big Star) and contemporaries (Pooh Sticks, Velvet Crush), Scotland's Teenage Fanclub obsesses about the twin concerns of pure pop love and pure pop music. Not quite fan boys and not quite ironists, they chew on both subjects with a slightly distanced deliberation, the honest heart side by side with the jaundiced eye. On their fourth full-length album, Grand Prix, they couch these meditations in simple, elegant midtempo verse-verse-chorus (or chorus-chorus-verse) settings that feature their trademark spoken-sung vocals and their signature scrum of slashing, ringing guitar chords. For a band with three distinct songwriters (guitarist Norman Blake, bassist Gerard Love, and guitarist Raymond McGinley, all of whom sing their respective compositions), Teenage Fanclub sounds remarkably of a whole, and not solely because the trio's voices easily can be mistaken for one another. Blake weighs in with a passel of songs about the vicissitudes of love ("Mellow Doubt," "Neil Jung," "I'll Make It Clear," and the ballad portion of "Hardcore/Ballad"); Love effortlessly rolls out the hooks-aplenty pop-rock on "Sparky's Dream" and "Discolite"; and McGinley deftly encapsulates the band's world-view on "Verisimilitude" with the telling couplet "I only hope the verse is good/I hate verisimilitude." Their smart-ass rock literateness peeks through on "Neil Jung" (which, during its outro, alludes to N. Young's guitar work without quoting it directly) and the lives-up-to-its-title twofer "Hardcore/Ballad." As has frequently been the band's custom in the past, on "Discolite" they exhibit an uncanny ability to kick a song into the sonic stratosphere during its final fifteen seconds. This monkey's gone to heaven.

Similarly, Northern Virginia's Poole seamlessly zips through strummy ultrapop, although in their case the foursome takes pains to check any drollery at the door. To the sounds of chiming, buzzing guitars, airy, clear vocals, and propulsive melodies, they fashion bright, tuneful songs laced with charming puppy-love lyrics that range from romance's delirious peaks to its dispiriting valleys, not forgetting that vast bittersweet middle ground. If you were to stretch the Dentists and the Connells taffylike in opposite directions around the globe until they met up again, that rendezvous point would be Poolesville. Relentlessly fetching. (P.O. Box 1798, NYC, NY 10156-1798)

By Michael Yocke

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