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Is it a surprise that Welcome Back, Zoobombs! doesn't achieve such heights again? Not really, considering that "Highway a Go Go"'s most revered antecedents are one-shot deals from bands such as ? and the Mysterians and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The surprise is that it seems they didn't even make an attempt. The rest of the album approaches neither the rude volume nor the fever pitch of "Highway." Most of the other twelve tracks fall, not ineptly, into the crowded category of Jon Spencer/Beck-style blues-rap.

The catchy "Jumbo" is the best of these, featuring a singsong chorus by Zoobombs' female keyboardist, Mattaira. "The Swamp" and "Mojo Man" are more up-tempo, with Matsuo's jarringly staccato vocal barrage providing a brighter point of interest than the band's competent riffing. Zoobombs' workaday mimicry takes a turn for the worse when the band shifts its attention from amped-up four-piece rawk to trendier styles. Looping dirges "Estell" and "Urban Colours" convey little of Beck's endearing playfulness -- though that could just be the language barrier. Matsuo blurts out some stock rock phrases (like "You don't know how much I love you") in the frenetic "Midnight '69," but his broken English -- along with the song's rallying cry of "Sixty-nine!" -- suggest a novelty act better left to a band of lesser abilities. (Emperor Norton Records, 102 Robinson St., Los Angeles, CA 90026.)

-- Adam Heimlich

Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
(Mercury)

Lucinda Williams's songs have been covered by many of her fans -- Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, to name a few -- but the Lake Charles, Louisiana, native has never been satisfied with a songwriter's vicarious existence. Her twenty-year career has been a travelogue of backwaters, big cities, and regular swipes at fame. From NYC folksinger to twangy L.A. critical darling to the pride of Austin and the conscience of Nashville, Williams developed a strong self-concept and vision with each move. And in her longing voice and unabashedly Southern storytelling, one can see and hear the miles, places, and characters that have populated her life along the way.

The success of 1992's acclaimed Sweet Old World set the stage for another rambling journey in her life, the making of the followup, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The original Austin sessions with her touring band were finished in 1995, but Williams was dissatisfied and decided to recut the whole record with co-producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy in Nashville the next year. Earle left the project near the end, reportedly because of clashes with Williams and/or a scheduling conflict, leaving her to wrap up the album last year in Los Angeles with yet another co-producer, the E Street Band's Roy Bittan.

But whether self-doubt, perfectionism, or prescience caused the record's winding path, Williams ultimately knew best. From the album's first notes we're reminded why she is canonized alongside Chrissie Hynde in the rough, vulnerable, and brutally clever school of songwriting. "Right in Time," "Metal Firecracker," and "Greenville" detail the chivalrous and complicated world of barroom love, sweet and messy as a biker throwing his leather jacket over a puddle of beer and broken glass for his gal. But in Williams's songs, the giddy joy of cranking up ZZ Top and blasting down the highway in the wee hours is fleeting, replaced with drunken guitar players, perpetually borrowed cash, and passing glances that erupt into flying fists.

Some of her subjects don't survive life's slings and arrows, as in "Drunken Angel," where a tormented soul mate dies in his duct-taped shoes: "Blood spilled out of the hole in your heart/Over the strings of your guitar" she sings, recounting the instrument's path through the "worn-down places in the wood/That once that made you feel so good." "Lake Charles" tells of another departed soul, an East Texas lad with his heart and ashes in Louisiana. As she mourns, she wonders, "Did an angel whisper in your ear/And hold you close and take away your fear/In those long first moments?"

The title track is more upbeat, but equally delicate. Childhood hope and discipline fly by the car windows like cornfields and dust; tiny tears drip down a small cheek on the other side of the pane. "There goes the screen door slamming shut/You better do what you're told," she drawls. "When I get back this room better be picked up/Car wheels on a gravel road."

Though her vigilance may have resulted in years of delay and a few bloodied noses, Williams now has the record of her career to show for it.

-- Robin Myrick

Ahmad Jamal
Nature
(WEA/Atlantic)

Although Ahmad Jamal's name has been part of the jazz lexicon for more than 40 years, his recorded output over that period is relatively scant. Yet this pianist has shown Viagric staying power, in part thanks to having receiver his props from none other than Miles Davis, but mostly because of a graceful and accessible style and musicality. On his latest release, Nature, Jamal sounds like an artist in the flower of his career, defying (or perhaps ignoring) any notions that significant new jazz can spring only from younger, more market-friendly up-and-comers. Though he may have first arrived in the Sixties, Jamal is still here, creating music that is confident, honest, vibrant, and forever ripe.

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