The album contains many songs that are supposed to sound off-the-cuff yet heavy -- that is, like Pavement. But because the band is incapable of even a single interesting chord change, tracks such as "Tracy," "Dreaming Again," "Dear Deadly," and "Black Hole" plod along without meaning or merit -- all affectation and no style to call their own. Creeper Lagoon seems especially phony when dressed up as a rock-to-electronica crossover act. Because its songs are very basic, cliched, guitar-poppers, the additions of sampled Bulgarian folk chants and racks of sustaining and cresting keyboards (on "Prison Mix" and "Second Chance") come off as pretentious. That I Become sounds brightly glossed and shorn of rough edges, as if tailor-made for "modern rock" pop radio, is all the more shameful.

Creeper Lagoon honed its slick but innocuous skills in San Francisco, a city strongly associated with rock music even though its most recent alleged contributions to the genre were 4 Non Blondes and Third Eye Blind. Those are two good reasons to disbelieve the hype about Creeper Lagoon. Bands like this don't fail in terms of aesthetics only: By intentionally misusing their language -- both musically and critically -- they affront the very culture of rock. (Nickelbag, 4470 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90027)

-- Adam Heimlich

Vonda Shepard
Songs from Ally McBeal

No, movie soundtracks aren't enough. Apparently some genius at Sony headquarters decided it was time for all you suckers to carve just a little deeper into your paychecks and pony up for a television soundtrack. And he (or she or they) are probably figuring that you consumers are such drooling idiots that all you need is a picture of Ally McBeal's cute little kisser on the cover and you'll shell out the sixteen bucks. Sort of like a Pavlovian thing: See the sprite, pay the cash.

Please don't do this.
See, the album inside really, really sucks. This chick, Vonda Shepard, I'm sure she means well and all, but she can't sing. And she can't write songs for crap, either. The titles just about say it all: "Searchin' My Soul," "Will You Marry Me," "The Wildest Times of the World." This is the sort of synthesized dreck that belongs on a karaoke machine, not on a major-label release. (The quiet, nearly dignified ballad "Maryland" is the sole exception.)

Expectedly, Shepard's covers are equally vomitous. She somehow manages to turn Rudy Clark's "It's in His Kiss" into a deeply depressing exercise in forced frivolity. The same tinkle of artificiality marks her rendition of B.J. Thomas's already insipid "Hooked on a Feeling." Shepard's voice is a cheap knockoff of Joan Osborne (who is, in turn, a cheap knockoff of Janis Joplin). Her keyboard work is just about dull enough to match the studio musicians who sleepwalk through their parts.

This is the kind of record that has nothing to do with soul and absolutely everything to do with cross-marketing. In fact, let's not even call it a record. Let's call it what it is: a product.

-- Steve Almond

The Four Blazes
Mary Jo

Tab Smith
Top 'N' Bottom

Although Delmark has been duly lauded as one of the finest contemporary blues and jazz labels around, the Chicago-based indie's excavation of the United Records vaults has produced some of R&B's most essential reissues. The best of the latest batch is Mary Jo, a stunning and illuminating assortment of urbane, intimate, but unquestionably swinging early-Fifties vocal-group bop from the Windy City's Four Blazes. "Mary Jo," the group's debut for United, defined the Blazers' style, with a slinky twelve-bar rhythmic vamp, darting sax, William Hill's tasty jazzbo guitar fills, and a sly, crooning vocal from bassist Tommy Braden. (Think Charles Brown without the late-night melancholy, or the King Cole Trio on a jump-blues bender.) The song spent three weeks at the top of the R&B chart in 1952, and though none of the followups to "Mary Jo" came close to its success, everything on this stellar collection -- the dazzling six-string showcase "Stop Boogie Woogie," the romping "All Night Long," and "Rug Cutter" especially -- defines the sound of R&B in the prerock era.

Also worth finding is Top 'N' Bottom, part three in Delmark's series devoted to the complete United recordings of Tab Smith. An important if unacclaimed alto and tenor sax giant who spent the Forties in the orchestras of Count Basie and Lucky Millinder, Smith led his own combo throughout the Fifties, wedding masterfully the taut swing of small-combo jazz with the swagger and raunch of honking uptown R&B. His lone hit for United, 1951's "Because of You," is included on Delmark's Jump Time (part one of the series), and his greatest performance -- "Sunny Side of the Street" -- appears on part two, Ace High. But Top 'N' Bottom features a wealth of previously unissued essential wailers and weepers, from the heartbreaking "My Ideal" to a stunning, swooping version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." (Delmark, 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618)

-- John Floyd

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