Tommy Shaw
7 Deadly Zens
(CMC International)

Night Ranger
(CMC International)

Former Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw may have been rockin' the Paradise while Night Ranger was still dreaming of a bar tab and enough gas money to reach their next gig, but the two bands' careers have become increasingly intertwined over the years.

One of the dominant radio and concert acts of the late Seventies/early Eighties, Styx blended cocksure progressive rock with a Midwestern working-class ethic, yielding a string of album-rock staples including "Grand Illusion," "Blue Collar Man," and "Come Sail Away." But it's the gooey power ballads "Babe" and "The Best of Times" that most people remember best, hits immortalized at countless weddings and high school proms of the era. Just as Styx's popularity began to wane, Night Ranger took off, spinning big hair, fat chords, and blustery melodrama into a new golden sound of success, with glitzy arena-ready anthems such as 1982's "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" and the bombastic "Sister Christian," a Top 5 hit in 1984.

By the early Nineties both groups were all but forgotten, as was the solo career Shaw had embarked on after Styx's '84 breakup. But when he and Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades teamed in 1990 with Ted Nugent in the group Damn Yankees, success came around again. The fist-pumping, Bic-flicking supergroup answered the wail of grunge with indulgent lead guitar and yearning pop hooks; the hits "High Enough" and "Where You Goin' Now" followed. Well, now all three groups are back together; Night Ranger has released Seven, and Styx and Damn Yankees are working on new records. Blades and Shaw have also finished their latest projects.

On 7 Deadly Zens, Shaw's fourth solo record, he lets his boyhood roots show a bit, folding in influences from his days playing in soul revues, cabaret shows, and pick-up bands in Montgomery, Alabama. Particularly nice are the slinky soul ballads "Who I Am" and "All in How You Say It," and "Half a Mind," a mountain-tinged duet with bluegrass diva Allison Krauss that, surprisingly, accommodates both artists' disparate styles. Blades and Nugent also guest on the record, and they are especially welcome on "Ocean," the energetic lead track. Blades is a solid sideman, and Nugent's playing is actually restrained here, magnifying the effect when he finally lets it rip.

"Diamond" is another nice surprise, contrasting Shaw's bright, effusive vocal with the emotional espionage played out in his dark twangy surf guitar lines. And on "Inspiration" the ringing acoustic guitar and clucking percussion of the verse segue into a stomping electric chorus, then into the sound collage "Mona Lisa," ending with an other-worldly gale of hosannas and sinister crosstalk. There are also a number of tunes pulled straight from Shaw's old bag of AOR tricks, such as "Straight Down the Line" and "A Place to Call My Own," but even the standard-issue songs here have strong arrangements and interesting twists.

Eddie Ashworth's powerful mix pumps up the guitars and percussion, but he also does a great job of smoothly blending piano, a string quartet, and other instruments into the album's twelve tracks. His and Shaw's assured production gives coherence to the diversity here, from tight, speaker-popping grooves and sound-loop experiments to hearty love songs that land their punches just to the left of the sugar bowl.

Night Ranger is less successful in moving forward on Seven, the group's first new offering in ten years, and their biggest noise since "Sister Christian" fueled the climactic firecracker scene of Boogie Nights. That bit of celluloid may have mistakenly convinced the guys of their continued relevance, but they at least make a valiant and energetic attempt to matter here. "Sign of the Times" is a great opener, a tough, fun, rebel rocker that reads like a personal ad for the lost generation. "Do you like walking in the rain/With holes in your pockets?" Blades sneers at his smashmouth girl, as the guitar lines peel off in the distance, following up with "Do you like drinking coffee/At an outdoor cafe/Dissing all the people/They're just trying to live their lies away." "Panic in Jane" is also quite cool, as the listener walks through the day with another disaffected, cynical gal as her world collapses to a chugging beat and a roaring chorus.

Then there is "Kong," a panting sexual romp with a conscience that pays homage to the machismo of the great cinema ape. But while Blades claims he wants a mate instead of a "Barbie doll, a rubber lover, or a phone-sex goddess," the song's smarmy, "pretty mama" jive talk throughout suggests he's stuck in reverse on the evolutionary treadmill. "Soul Survivor," "Sea of Love," and "Peace Sign," meanwhile, are serviceable attempts to recapture old glories, albeit with a heightened sense of social awareness and commentary, but the songs all begin to run together after a while. Seven provides a partial antidote to Night Ranger's familiar histrionics, but it also poisons their ambitions with the same old Top 40 goo that leaves fans satiated and the rest of us queasy.

-- Robin Myrick

Thelonious Monk
Live at the It Club Complete

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