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Jerry Cantrell
Boggy Depot
(Columbia)

After five platinum-selling records with hard rock gladiators Alice in Chains, guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell's first solo album finds him in the catbird's seat. The much-publicized drug problems of Chains' vocalist Layne Staley has resulted in the band losing some steam and touring opportunities in recent years, but Cantrell's new Boggy Depot CD neatly fills the gap during his full-time group's current hiatus, and may just free him from reliance on any strung-out associates from his past.

Named for his father's Oklahoma home, Boggy Depot features Cantrell on guitar, piano, and vocals, plus a host of guest bassists, including Norword Fisher (Fishbone), Rex Brown (Pantera), Les Claypool (Primus), and the Chains' Mike Inez. That group's drummer Sean Kinney played on the entire record, and Fishbone's Angelo Moore contributed horns to two tracks. Considering that Cantrell wrote many of Chains' hits (including "Rooster" and "Would?") and co-produced Boggy Depot with the group's regular producer Toby Wright, it's no surprise to hear him burning and wailing through comfortable ground here.

Cantrell's voice is clean and earnest, and his use of AIC's cool, multilayered harmony style continues to sound great even without Staley's raspy growl. Cantrell's customary sonic friction and warped guitar figures are also well done here, particularly on rockers such as "Dickeye," the fiery "Jesus Hands," and the terrific minor-chord acoustic tango "Cut You In." Cantrell allows himself a number of highly confessional moments here as he sets the record's main theme -- the consequences of love and destruction. "Breaks My Back" captures the dichotomy, described in many of the songs, that love is rejected only at a price or enjoyed at a significant sacrifice. In "Between," a nifty hard-pop number with glowing harmonies, he blunts the no-win relationship with a sugary chorus straight out of the Who's "The Kids Are Alright." But Cantrell's independence is best represented in "Cold Piece"; the spare, spooky groove is adorned with free-floating guitar, piano, and horn parts as Cantrell defends lost causes and free will.

While there's no doubt that Cantrell is capable of being a star in his own right, there is also a dogged repetition to some of the melodies and lyrics that somewhat dampens the spirit of the album. "Settling Down" and "My Song" demonstrate Cantrell's willingness to repeat a phrase over and over in an attempt to convey introspection, but a healthy sense of dissonance and the occasional raging guitar rush save the day. Overall, Boggy Depot is a promising look at Cantrell's past and future that confirms his reach and survival as an artist beyond Alice in Chain's ultimate fate -- whatever that may be.

-- Robin Myrick

Jerry Cantrell performs Wednesday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 800-759-4624. Headliners Metallica and opening act Days of the New are also on the bill. The show is sold out.

Mike Ireland & Holler
Learning How to Live
(Sub Pop/Sire)

While the punked-up sound of the insurgent country movement degenerates into messy bohemian doodlings (e.g., Trailer Bride, Scroat Belly), ex-Starkweathers frontman Mike Ireland and his new band Holler have found an even more subversive honky-tonk strain. Namely, countrypolitan, the string-laden and much-maligned subgenre introduced in the Sixties by producer Owen Bradley and protege Patsy Cline and perfected over the next decade in the brilliant collaborations between knob-twiddler Billy Sherrill and his bodacious stable of talent, which included George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich. Long the bane of purists who lean toward the tough, swaggering sound of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Jones pre-Sherrill, countrypolitan nonetheless produced some of Nashville's greatest hits, from Rich's "Life's Little Ups and Downs" and Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."

Ireland isn't writing them that good yet, but Learning How to Live, the Kansas City-based singer/songwriter's debut with Holler, has more than a few that come close, and he and co-producer Marvin Etzioni have draped most of them in the finery of countrypolitan. Meaning you get a beautiful glockenspiel at the beginning of "Christmas Past," some lovely Floyd Cramer flourishes (compliments of guest pianist Benmont Tench) on "Worst of All," a majestic string section on the aching title track, and an ominous cello slicing through "House of Secrets." That's not to say this is all mushy and gooey like countrypolitan at its worst: Throughout the set, especially on "Don't Call This Love" and "Headed for a Fall," Michael Lemon's lead guitar snaps like a string of firecrackers, a perfect match for the piercing twang in Ireland's vocals. And Ireland's lyrics are steeped in the politics of the barroom and the bedroom, on weepers such as "Worst of All" and the raging and vindictive "House of Secrets." And with "Christmas Past" Ireland has concocted an ode of seasonal pathos worthy of Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December."

Great as they are -- and make no mistake, this is a great band -- you have to wonder what's going to happen with Ireland and Holler. Too raw for country radio, too slick for the indie-rock brigade that's gathered around the Waco Brothers, Holler will most likely slip quietly into the dark corner of cultdom that's become home to neo-trad no-sellers Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, and Mike Henderson. And that's too bad, because Learning How to Live is contemporary country at its finest, be it insurgent, mainstream, or classic.

-- John Floyd

Today Is the Day
Temple of the Morning Star
(Relapse)

Forget Slayer. Forget death metal. The house band from Hell is actually Nashville-based Today Is the Day, and the group's latest disc, Temple of the Morning Star, provides just about all the inspiration anyone without severe mental problems needs to find religion fast. Worse yet, for reasons of national security and personal safety, we'll need to keep an eye on those who think this band has any redeeming value whatsoever.

Today Is the Day's most glaring defect is the vocals of bandleader and tortured soul Steve Austin. (Actually it's doubtful if the concept of vocals has any relevance to Today Is the Day.) His relentlessly pained, notably horrific, and downright annoying shriek arrives from somewhere beyond the grave. Pray it returns, with or without him, sometime soon.

Austin's expressions of rage are so blinding that his guitar playing and the work of bassist Mike Harrel, drummer Mike Hyde (since replaced by original drummer Brad Elrod, who appeared on the group's first three LPs and two EPs on Amphetamine Reptile), and keyboardist Chris "The Savior" Reeser go almost unnoticed. For the most part, that wouldn't be any loss, since the seventeen tracks on Temple more closely resemble incidental music from The Exorcist or some other equally creepy, occult-based horror movie than songwriting with any relation to even the most deviant branch of popular culture.

Throughout most of the disc, Austin's guitar work consists of choppy rhythm patterns and repetitious sequences of high-pitched, poorly tuned squeals. Drummer Hyde is completely out of control and undisciplined, with unnecessary and distracting fills terrorizing every spare measure. Lyrically, Austin's range of topics covers all the hackneyed cliches favored by those who pose as anarchist Devil worshippers: sick sex, suicide, and Satan.

Of course there are some in our society who seek just this kind of band to deify. Unfortunately, their taste in entertainment has little to do with music. Pity them.

-- Adam St. James

Today Is the Day performs Friday, June 19, at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 757-1807, with Converge, Cavity, and Morning Again. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Cover charge is $7.

Mitchell Froom
Dopamine
(Atlantic)

Producer/arranger Mitchell Froom has shaped some of the best records of the Eighties and Nineties with his graceful touch and artist-centered approach. His obscure 1982 solo debut (the soundtrack to the cult porn classic Cafe Flesh) led to an extraordinary career producing artists such as Richard Thompson, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Crowded House, American Music Club, Cibo Matto, and Los Lobos. Sixteen years later his second solo outing, Dopamine, illuminates the breadth and depth of his contributions.

The dozen songs on Dopamine are a collaborative effort Froom began in 1994 and recorded between his production duties for other artists. He wrote the music here and plays piano, organ, Indian banjo, harmonium, and a variety of other instruments. Former clients, including wife Suzanne Vega, Mark Eitzel (American Music Club), Sheryl Crow, Miko Hatori (Cibo Matto), David Hidalgo and Louie Perez (Los Lobos), and Ron Sexsmith, supply lyrics and vocals, and musicians such as Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas (the Attractions), Steve Berlin (also from Los Lobos), and studio vets Jerry Marotta and Steve Donnelly also appear on the record.

Froom and co-producer Tchad Blake set out to update the auteur tradition of composer/arrangers such as Henry Mancini and Gil Evans by creating a new, lavishly skewed pop lexicon that incorporates Eastern music, cabaret, jazz, techno, and rock. Froom's fascination with the soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver) also weaves through the tracks, from the spare, lost sound of Eitzel singing "Watery Eyes" to the ominous button cinema organ of the instrumental "Noodletown."

Froom approached the project as a kind of personal soundtrack, and the album plays like a long sequence of one- to three-minute movie trailers. "I'd Better Not" is a snaky, beatnik B movie, as Froom's jazzy piano playing confronts squealing, honking sax runs at every turn. Smoky barfly camp permeates "The Bunny," with a rambling vocal performance by Soul Coughing's M. Doughty. "Wave" blends Hatori's dreamy melody with a spooky Pacific island sway. And "Monkey Mind" is perhaps the most cinematic, conjuring a terror-at-the-carnival feeling as the song shifts abruptly from Sheryl Crow's ranting rock dirge to carousel sounds to slinky lounge music.

At just under 32 minutes, Dopamine is a short but intriguing diversion that succinctly displays the range and ingenuity Froom has always demonstrated as a producer. The generous mixing of styles and performers may render the album so esoteric that only fans of the artists involved may appreciate it, but the record as a whole confirms that Froom's talent and understanding of music is as unusual as those of his colleagues.

-- Robin Myrick

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