Along with tribute albums, side projects have become prevalent to the point of cliche in the Nineties. Composed of overcooked egos and half-baked musical ideas, most of these projects collapse under the weight of their own indulgence. Brad is a worthy exception, a quartet that plays its urgent brand of melodic rock as if it's been on the road for years. Formed back in 1992 as a one-shot project, the band is anchored by guitarist Stone Gossard, who longed to play a looser brand of pop than his Pearl Jam bandmates would brook. He recruited folk-rocker Jeremy Toback (bass) and Satchel members Shawn Smith (vocals/piano) and Regan Hagar (drums), then put out a thrilling debut album.

That record, Shame, was quickly forgotten. Amid the upsurge of Pearl Jam, Gossard was forced to rejoin his regular band, but he didn't forget about Brad. Last year the foursome recorded a second album, Interiors, a collaborative effort that packs all the emotive wallop of a Pearl Jam record with about half the bombast.

"Those Three Words" opens with the slinky synth bass line that Prince has always used to such great effect; it bubbles along to Hagar's Latin-tinged percussion. Midway through it takes a sharp left into progressive rock, with Gossard providing a nicely restrained guitar solo and Smith following suit on his dreamy Moog synthesizer. Between its title and tempo, "Funeral Song" qualifies as a dirge, with Smith whispering his melancholy lyrics over a minor-key melody and flourishes of flute. "The Day Brings" calls to mind Elton John in his prime, with Smith tinkling at his piano and belting in a tenor seemingly born to deliver epic ballads. His growly work on "Secret Girl" reveals him to be equally adept at anthems. Indeed, Smith is the big surprise on this record. Ably supported by his mates, particularly Gossard, whose leads shimmer throughout, Smith proves that the Seattle scene can produce more than angst-ridden yelpers. His vocals soar on a wing that isn't wounded but triumphant. And this time around fans will have a chance to see for themselves. With Pearl Jam off the road for the moment, Brad will tour to support Interiors. Let's hope Gossard never returns to that day job.

-- Greg Prato

The Album

There's good reason for the boasting that's such a prominent feature of rap music. Only those extremely confident of their ability can survive in hip-hop, a part of the music industry truly filled with sharks. Even hip-hop's stars aren't wanted by the music-biz power structure, which remains uncomfortable with street culture despite its great profitability. If you don't think you're better than the next guy, maybe you aren't, and you'll almost certainly never be able to bulldoze your way past all the obstacles that stand in the way of getting your sounds on wax. Competition may also be so in-your-face in hip-hop simply because the need to compete is an essential part of human nature.

Competition is certainly valued in San Francisco's burgeoning hip-hop scene, and the poetic guys in Latyrx known as Lateef and Lyrics Born are determined to be winners. Aided by DJ Shadow in the producer's chair, they bust complex rhymes, sometimes going in two directions at once, yet keeping the flow anchored with sharply observed details. Behind basic beats, keyboard sounds open slowly like a basement door or a yawn, and the effect is to draw a circle around the words. On "Burnt Pride" they explain that they "tried speaking in a rational manner/Tried to get my point across using regular means." That didn't work, so they break out the knives on "Say That" and "Latyrx," slicing up sucker emcees with lyrical blades.

The impulse that led to attempts to "speak in a rational manner" flowers on "Balcony Beach." Watching the ocean waves, Lyrics Born lets his creativity flow and opens up the intimate details of his creative process to us: "Every time they'd back out to sea/It's like they'd draw just a little more out of me/A lot of images and feelings/Just a limitless release/And I began to reminisce freely/It was a cinema/Featuring me and a cast of emotions." Exaggerating his Humphrey Bogart style of vocal delivery as if to deny that these beautiful thoughts were his in case he's fronted, Lyrics Born is perfectly undercut and balanced by the silky backing vocals of Joyo. Winding through a complex story of the shock of becoming an adult, they conclude the track with a determination to "make it happen, make it through." For once, a rapper opens up his soul on wax and doesn't talk about committing suicide. That gives us all something to live for.

-- Lee Ballinger

My Own Prison
(Wind-Up Records)

Here comes the next big thing, which sounds like the last big thing, and the thing before that: MetalliMegaQueensJam -- or, as they somewhat obstinately insist on calling themselves, Creed. The debut by these Tallahassee rockers (singer Scott Stapp, guitarist Mark Tremonti, bassist Brian Marshall, and drummer Scott Phillips) arrives on a wave of hype that is just that: hype. From the lame Eddie Vedder vocal ripoff that Stapp perpetrates on "Torn" to the unimaginative guitar work and horribly banal lyrics of "In America," Creed pretty much stinks up the joint.

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