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Lyrically Smith tends toward the melancholy, playing either troubled lover ("I was bad news for you/Just because/I never meant to hurt you," he sings on "Pitseleh") or barely sympathetic counselor to the same ("You're giving back a little hatred now to the world/'Cause it treated you bad/'Cause you couldn't keep the Great Unknown from making you mad," goes "A Question Mark"). In both cases the quality of his craftsmanship makes him sound wise beyond his years. Tough guy, stage-frightened cowboy, this year's model -- whatever. Whoever he is, Elliott Smith is keyed in to something truly magnificent.

-- Adam Heimlich

Rocket from the Crypt
RFTC
(Interscope)

There's music for hanging out and partying with friends, and then there's music for getting absolutely shit-faced drunk, ripping off your clothes and rubbing your sweaty butt against something cool and metallic. Rocket from the Crypt doesn't just hang, so drop trou, folks; this is the real McCoy. RFTC stomps in with a full battalion of horns and battering-ram drums (and with vocal help from the Headcoatees' Holly Golightly) right from the first strains of "Eye on You," leaving bootprints on almost any unsuspecting sternum unfamiliar with the ways of this San Diego-based sleaze-core sextet. The song fades, supplanted by the ripping chords of "Break It Up," with its Beatles' "Revolution" groove and a group call-and-response chorus of "Break it up, break it up, yeah!" Simple men, simple sentiments, and simply inspired blue-collar rock and roll.

The hyper pace continues until half the disc has passed, at which time Rocket from the Crypt eases the tempo slightly for "Lipstick," a gem of a horn-drenched sing-along with lyrics as taxing as "She don't wear makeup, only red lipstick/And she looks so fine." Lead vocalist Speedo's lyrics are pedestrian at best, and his voice is a bizarre amalgam of guys like Shane MacGowan, Mojo Nixon, and Pere Ubu's David Thomas, all of whose voices share a pugnacious flatness in delivery. But what makes Speedo's singing so compelling has nothing to do with traditional vocal quality. Like the band pressing and flailing away behind him, he is clearly 100 percent committed to the songs he's singing.

He strays from his usually gruff vocal attack on two of the disc's best songs. "You Gotta Move" is a looser, more melodic groove for the group, allowing the singer to stretch out with a more relaxed delivery. And "Let's Get Busy," an old-school-style soul tune reminiscent of a 1958 sock hop, shows the entire band's versatility: elastic walking bass, melodic horn figures, ambling organ from the legendary Jim Dickinson, and a general in-the-pocket vibe that allows Speedo's limited singing to take on a romanticism unique to RFTC. But ultimately it's the sheer force of Rocket from the Crypt that carries the album, and it's strong enough to make the two or three clunkers on this 41-minute ride seem unfortunate rather than just plain bad. The term rock and roll started as a euphemism for sex, and RFTC is one of the sexiest discs you'll hear all year. Don't listen alone.

-- Michael C. Harris

Leon Parker
Awakening
(Columbia)

Don't expect jazz drummer Leon Parker to plop down behind a twenty-piece drum kit and kick out a cacophonous solo a la Buddy Rich or Max Roach. Not that he couldn't do that. Parker's gig, though, is minimalist drumming -- minimalist to the point that his equipment at some Manhattan club dates in the early Nineties consisted of nothing more than a cymbal. On Awakening, his third outing as a band leader, the thirtysomething Parker continues his journey down a road less traveled by many of his contemporaries. While other excellent jazz drummers are currently making impressive and diverse contributions (Al Foster, Lewis Nash, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, for example), few have taken the leader's chair as boldly or successfully as he has. With unusual instrumental combinations to create music that is sparse yet vibrant, forceful yet hypnotic, his compositions offer tastes of Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean, as well as a fresh perspective on drumming and jazz in general.

While Parker still adheres to a less-is-more philosophy, most tracks on Awakening come together in a dense rhythmic and sonic tapestry. The rapid-fire, often intense aural action running through much of the album thus approaches minimalism from an unexpected angle. Standard jazz instruments supply the melody on some tracks, primarily in the form of Steve Wilson and Sam Newsome's imaginative sax playing. But what sets Awakening apart is the interplay of the saxes with more than a dozen percussive instruments, including ashiko, caxixi, and steel drum.

As the organic beat of the album's opening track, "All My Life," gradually emerges, Wilson's alto sax trades lines with Tracie Morris's conversational vocals, and Parker's polytonal drumming shapes a rich, melodic rhythm. As that song fades into the distance, "Tokyo" takes its place, where Parker's marimbas, Wilson's soprano sax, and Natalie Cushman's sublime vocals converge in a haunting Eastern melody. It's perhaps the album's finest example of power through understatement, evoking the restrained, almost implied might of jazz giants like Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

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