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The Grifters
Ain't My Lookout
(Sub Pop)

For the past six years, the Grifters have made some beautifully fractured and schizophrenic music -- loose yet deceptively complex, chaotic and noisy but susceptible to moments of majestic pop splendor. Over the course of three albums, an EP, and a slew of singles, the Memphis quartet has fused the ragged blues and shimmying soul of their hometown with the damaged-pop legacy of Memphis iconoclast Alex Chilton. Along the way they've thrown in references to everyone from Brian Eno and Led Zeppelin to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. The Grifters' music is based on familiar pre- and postpunk concepts, yet they can throw some wicked curve balls, littering sweet melodies with thick gobs of gnarly distortion and thunderous percussion.

Ain't My Lookout, the band's fourth album and first for Sub Pop, is a marvelous showcase of the Grifters' musical schizophrenia, and it may be their masterpiece. Moving from the aching melancholy of "Pretty Notes" to the chaotic snarl of "Covered in Flies," the band has found a perfect balance between the yin and yang of chief songwriters/vocalists/guitarists Dave Shouse and Scott Taylor. Shouse favors mood pieces defined by inscrutable lyrics and oddball chord progressions, as proven on Lookout's "Return to Cinder" and "Mysterious Friends." Taylor writes more straightforward songs built around drunken nights, shaky mornings, and shattered romances. His "Parting Shot" wouldn't be out of place on a mid-Eighties Replacements album, while "Day Shift" melds the soul of swampy blues into a crunchy, slow-walking punk vamp.

Much like the austere Eureka EP from last year, Lookout finds the Grifters stripping away some of the dense layers of distortion and fuzz from their trademark sound, replacing them with ornate, symphonic flourishes on "Pretty Notes" and "My Apology" and quirky little "bop-bop" background vocals on "Mysterious Friends." They've also learned something about restraint. Although "Covered in Flies" and "Boho/Alt" explode in typically cacophonous bursts, the tension throughout most of Lookout is sustained. The threat of a sonic kaboom is merely implied, which adds an unnerving edge to nearly everything here, even to "Last Man Alive," a shamelessly bouncy and catchy pop gem by Shouse that should expand the perimeter of the Grifters' cozy indie-rock niche.

By John Floyd

Maxwell
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
(Columbia)

Handsome in his designer clothes and angelic nappy dreads, Maxwell styles himself as a modern-day urban love prophet in the time-honored tradition of Marvin Gaye. His ambitious debut album Urban Hang Suite offers a conceptual song cycle that purports to tell a fully rounded tale of true love in the tough inner city. Instead, Maxwell delivers just another set of tired R&B elevator music, with trite lyrics along the lines of "Gonna take you in the room suga'/Lock you up and love for days."

On first listen there's a lot to like, especially "Urban Theme" and "Welcome," on which the early Eighties-style R&B and pop-jazz grooves recall the bright days of Maze and the cool nights of Steely Dan. Soon, though, the flat production obscures Maxwell's passionate vocals and turns everything here into innocuous background music. Even capable collaborators such as Stewart Matthewman and Leon Ware A who've written with Sade and Marvin Gaye, respectively A can't save Maxwell from his own pretensions; nor can funk guitar legend Wah Wah Watson, making this Hang Suite just another empty room.

By Roni Sarig

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins +3
(Fantasy/Milestone)

Maybe it's just the sorry state of jazz in general these days that would induce a creative giant like tenor sax man Sonny Rollins to release such a lightweight effort. Sure, there's plenty to like on this new set -- Rollins's dazzling improvisatory flights and some fine work from two different trios. Ultimately, though, +3 feels perfunctory when compared to Rollins's best work of the Fifties and Sixties.

He has never been what you'd call a minimalist player, but on +3 he's downright verbose. His endless soloing actually begins to grate during a lengthy rendition of the Dinah Washington chestnut "What a Difference a Day Makes" and his own "Biji." You keep waiting for Rollins to step back and let the sidemen take a few choruses, but it never happens. A spry ride through "They Say It's Wonderful" fares a little better, although it lacks the emotional depth of the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman version from the early Sixties. A glib interpretation of "Mona Lisa" adds nothing to the song, except a snarky countermelody, played on chimes, which opens and closes the song. "H.S.," a tribute to pianist Horace Silver, displays flashes of Rollins's brilliance, with an ingratiating R&B riff spiked with some subversive chordings a la Silver.

Despite these occasional flashes, +3 is about as deep as your average kitchen skillet. Although Rollins used to blow tenor with tongue firmly in cheek, he also knew when to play it straight A as he did in the company of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. Here, though, he seems content simply to blow first and think about it later.

By Bob Weinberg

Barenaked Ladies
Born on a Pirate Ship
(Reprise)

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