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By Judy Cantor

Meat Puppets
No Joke!
(London)

No Joke! opens with several of the most widescreen production moves (strings, keyboards, and a lot of guitar overdubs) ever heard on a Meat Puppets album, as the massed guitars of Curt Kirkwood thunder forth like some newly discovered art-rock relic. After the first three cuts, the Puppets (Kirkwood, his bassist brother Cris, and drummer Derrick Bostrom), for the most part, settle into an intensely languid groove, similar to the one they fashioned on 1993's Too High to Die. Kirkwood's characteristic meld of pastoral imagery and deeply bent emotion marks these songs as surely as it did those on Too High, and a few of these numbers ("Head," "Nothing," and the already embraced-by-radio "Scum") stand out as obviously as did "Backwater," "Roof with a Hole," and "We Don't Exist" did on that previous album. And what other band would take their kids' artwork from the refrigerator door and slap it on the front and back covers of its CD booklet?

By Rickey Wright

Atomic Boy
Sonic Cocktail
(Victory)
The best Buzzcocks album that Green Day has yet to record.
By Michael Yockel

Ben Harper
Fight for Your Mind
(Virgin)

There are a number of bands who have made gobs of money cranking out amplified music, then looked to the unplugged format as a way of validating their status as acoustic musicians and songwriters. Nirvana, for example. Or Pearl Jam. Or Hole. Or even A egads A Stone Temple Pilots.

Ben Harper has gone the opposite route. His first album, 1993's Welcome to the Cruel World, was basically an unplugged session. The majority of the cuts featured just Harper and his acoustic guitar, and the disc brimmed with the pure tonal richness of his melodies, the heart-sore eloquence of his lyrics, and the resonance of his husky baritone.

Harper has lost none of these attributes on his second album, Fight for Your Mind. But he has gone electric, assembling a talented band behind him and placing an emphasis on making music that consciously rocks. His new rhythm section (bassist Juan Nelson and drummer Oliver Charles) adds a welcome thump to anthems such as "Burn One Down" and "Excuse Me Mr." Among the other innovations: an unobtrusive Hammond organ and subtly deployed African percussion. A four-piece string ensemble even gets into the act, elevating "Power of the Gospel" to elegiac heights.

Fortunately, Harper's own haunting songs remain firmly rooted in the midst of the layered mix, and his knack for the lovesick ballad has not diminished one iota. "Please please me like you want to/not like you have to/or won't you just go and leave me/Leaving is the least/that you could do," he sings on "Please Me Like You Want To." And the amazing thing is, you honestly feel for the guy.

As with his last record, Harper continues to write songs specifically aimed at racism toward African Americans ("Oppression," "People Lead"). These tend toward the didactic and are less successful than his more emotionally candid appeals to friends and lovers lost. But even the songs of protest are rescued by the sheer euphoniousness of the sounds Harper and his new troupe create. I very much doubt that Harper had this end in mind when he created Fight for Your Mind, but I sincerely hope he makes gobs of money off this masterful album. I want to make sure he's around for a good, long time.

By Steven Almond

Sugar Blue
In Your Eyes
(Alligator)

Although his sound certainly reflects past blues masters, Sugar Blue is a thoroughly modern original, blending deep blues feeling with rock-and-roll intensity and a sublime mastery of the chromatic harmonica. After years of virtual invisibility in the U.S., Sugar Blue returned in 1994 with the flashy Blue Blazes, which served as a showcase for his virtuosity. Despite the fact that the bulk of the record was standards, Sugar Blue's upper-register hang time, lightning speed, clear tone, and soulful vocals made it something special, if maddening to many traditional blues lovers: His phrasing and dynamics seemed to borrow as much from rock-and-roll grandstanding as from the soul-dredging sounds associated with blues masters. His followup, In Your Eyes, is even less traditional, borrowing still more from his rock roots; it is also stunning.

Almost entirely comprising original material (he bows to Willie Dixon with an amazing non-cliche read of "Little Red Rooster"), the album burns with white-hot intensity. Sugar Blue's playing is more subtly shaded than on his last effort -- perhaps he doesn't have as much to prove here -- his tone exquisite. The tunes themselves range from a somewhat bitter update of a Muddy Waters classic ("Gucci Gucci Man") to a very bitter bouncy rocker ("Bottom Line") to a quite bitter tell-off song ("Lip Service and Lies"). From his glowering cover photo to lyrics such as "It's a hard time on the bottom/They're gonna take it if you got it/Don't look to your Uncle Sam/Believe me, baby, he don't give a damn," In Your Eyes is the reflection of one hardened motherfucker. And though it's filled with tight grooves, the music, too, is hard, from scathing acid-toned guitar to nail-gun drumming to Blue's piercing harp wail. And yet a certain sadness permeates many of these songs, touching on romantic disappointments and political ones.

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