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Los Lobos
Colossal Head
(Warner Bros.)

All artists show their influences in their work. What separates the sublime from the hapless in this regard is the ability to do it without being crass. And there's certainly nothing crass about Colossal Head, the seventh long player from Los Lobos. Genius is mostly what's at work here, though it might be more accurate to call it genius at play.

Ever resistant to pigeonholing, Los Lobos come through yet again, this time with an album that embraces a gamut of musical styles without ever stooping to cliche. If the nostalgia of the opening cut, "Revolution," evokes War (another L.A. band) in its prime, "Can't Stop the Rain" is more a hypnotic meditation, Sly Stone meets the Cisco Kid. A pair of Cal-Mex entries, "Mas y Mas" and "Maricela," have Santana written on their percussion-driven jamming, but not all over it. There's also more than a taste here of Tom Waits, another artist from the City of Angels: in the moving tango that informs the truly lovely "Maricela"; in "Manny's Bones," a funky funeral march ("Manny's dead, didn't leave me nuttin'/Went off to Heaven, left his bed undone") that employs a hefty baritone sax to carry the coffin; and in "Everybody Loves a Train," which is set in motion by a steel-bodied guitar and a distorted, spoken paean to living near the tracks that sounds as if it's coming from a speaker on a subway. Even John Lennon seems to get a nod, in the shrill guitar and thin, distorted vocals of "This Bird's Gonna Fly."

But the title cut might be best of all, a loud, raucous rocker that puts everything all together as it rewrites the Little Red Riding Hood story in the Lobos' own peculiar tongue: "What big eyes you have/What big lips you have/What a nice head/I love you/Ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya/What you said -- I can't hear you/Do the colossal head."

If you were carrying around this breadth of musical sophistication and depth of talent, your head'd be colossal too.

-- Tom Finkel

Lifter
Melinda (Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt)
(Interscope)

Say it's late. Say there's another argument, lots of yelling in a parking lot -- always, a parking lot -- and say, at last, that she gives you the heave-ho, the ass-dump, the nonrefundable sigh-a-nora. You arrive home and don't even bother flicking on the lights. A door slams and you sit alone, broiling, half-mad with rage.

It is precisely at this juncture that you need to make Lifter a part of your life.

Eschewing the postured solipsism of the Seattle bratpack, this ragged Los Angeles trio makes music that roils with self-doubt, with unabashed bitterness, with an unhinged will for vengeance. You want angry? Check out these lines from "Big and Tall," delivered with a furious yelp by Mike Coulter, over the dirgelike roar of his guitar: "If you wound up homeless/If you turned up strung out/Wouldn't even help/The way I feel right now/I'll shoot you down/In your silver-plated beds/I'll cut you down/In your cozy, creepy bars/I'll bring you down/from your lousy lofty heights."

Of course, rage alone does not a band make, and Lifter's got the riffs and chops to back up the attitude. Coulter's guitar zigzags from buzz-saw flailing to plaintive strums, with bassist Jeff Sabelia and drummer John Rozas providing rhythms to match the mood. The anthems are pure sonic power, bottom-heavy and explosive A angst waiting to blow your woofers. But Lifter also shows a remarkable gift for the soft touch. Ballads such as "402," "Something Borrowed," and "Beach" reveal the vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface of Coulter's homicidal rants.

In the lushly textured "Rich, Dark, Sultry Red of Hate," he confesses: "I'm weak with a heart from the old school." The same can be said of this entire, splendid debut. Heartbreak hasn't sounded this true for years.

By Steven Almond

Dawn Upshaw
White Moon
(Nonesuch)

White Moon shines. Here's an excellent example of the concept album, done classical style. Subtitled "Songs to Morpheus," this disc offers a collection of vocal music that deals with aspects of night -- the moon, sleep, and its cousin, death. The dark hours can be a time of respite and oblivion, but they also can be a time when the lonely cry out, when the violent grow stronger, and when the will to live flickers like a candle in a dark window.

Selections from three centuries of nocturnal music are included on this ambitious CD. Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel rub sagging shoulders with more excitable moderns such as Joseph Schwantner and George Crumb. Crumb's Night of the Four Moons is an ear-expanding setting of words by Federico Garcia Lorca. White Moon's highlight, this work is notable for the innovative demands that it makes on the singer and on the instrumental ensemble -- an unusual combination of alto flute, piccolo, banjo, electric cello, and percussion. Another notable selection is the aria from the popular Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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