Jonny Lang
Wander This World

Pop culture mavens are always looking for a pretty new face on which to pin their fortunes. Nearly three years ago they found one in sixteen-year-old Jonny Lang, an anomaly of a teenager. Unlike most others his age, Lang spent the majority of his postpubescent afternoons working on his bluesy vocal and guitar skills rather than his skateboard and Nintendo abilities. And to hell with what the rest of the kids in his native Fargo, North Dakota (and later, Minneapolis), were concentrating on: For Lang, Bush didn't matter nearly as much as B.B. King.

His 1996 A&M Records debut, Lie to Me, a solid collection of blues standards mixed with a handful of originals penned by his mentors (and big-brother-like bandmates), was a resounding success. The album spent more than six months at the top of the Billboard blues charts, made a fine showing in the Top 200 albums chart, spawned hit singles and videos, and landed Lang's boyishly charming countenance on many a national magazine cover and prominent TV show. Any sophomore effort by the suddenly ubiquitous young musician would have been a hard act to follow.

It is admirable, then, that Lang's handlers have decided not to cash in on his appeal as a pop sensation with a trite collection of Lie to Me double takes. Instead, they've allowed Lang to take the high road, a path marked by excellent songwriting and musicianship, and graced with a broad overview of his formidable talents. Blues fans, though, may be somewhat disappointed; Wander This World contains only a few tracks that would fall in that category, the energetic album opener "Still Rainin'" and a torrid cover of Luther Allison's "Cherry Red Wine" foremost among them.

On cuts such as "I Am" (with a songwriting credit given to Prince) and "Before You Hit the Ground" (written by Lang and Minneapolis-based songwriter Kevin Bowe), the disc gets truly funky. With "Breakin' Me," a gentle acoustic number (and another Lang/Bowe collaboration), the singer delves into the type of tearjerker balladry so successfully dispensed by producer/songwriter extraordinaire Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds (think Eric Clapton's "Change the World"). The title track (penned by Lang's bandmembers, guitarist Paul Diethelm and keyboardist Bruce McCabe), though not nearly as loving in nature, is another superb acoustic-based track, full of yearning and anticipation.

Now approaching age nineteen, Lang is clearly looking at the long run careerwise. He could easily have followed Lie to Me with pure pop pablum that may have made him millions, or with a straight blues collection that would have secured his place on the festival circuit for years to come. Instead, he's chosen to stretch (not too far) and grow in the direction of a long line of critically acclaimed performers (think Delaney Bramlett, Joe Cocker, and Delbert McClinton) who have preceded him. Quite possibly, his long-term fame will exceed theirs, while his musical choices will prove at least equal to theirs, especially as his own songwriting talents evolve.

-- Adam St. James

Local H
Pack Up the Cats

Power and melody. The elusive balance of the two makes for some of the most invigorating and exciting rock and roll. Chicago's Local H has always trafficked in that pulse-revving mixture, and on this, their third album for Island, the dynamic duo of drummer Joe Daniels and guitarist/bassist Scott Lucas are back on the corner peddling potent packets of rawk.

Legendary producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars) did with Local H what an ace producer should do: make 'em sound bigger, heavier, and cleaner. Whether he directs his attention to powerhouse anthems or tuneful acoustic-based numbers, an energetic sound and more determined songwriting are the most obvious benefits of Baker's production, making Pack Up the Cats the most fully realized Local H yet.

"All-Right (Oh, Yeah)" blasts the disc open with a vigorous, chantable rock chorus (the title) that is as dumb as it is fun. (Sometimes a great riff is just a great riff, right?) "Lucky," a short acoustic preview of the album-closing "Lucky Time," kicks off the first of three connected-song cycles, this one -- the most focused -- revolving around the move from suburban America to the big city. The grungy "Hit the Skids Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rock" finds the recently transplanted rocker out of his element and trying to fit in ("Everyone's telling jokes that I don't get at all"); the unrelenting instrumental "500,000 Scovilles" could be our hero bashing it out on-stage or on the streets; and the insinuating "What Can I Tell You?" seems both an understanding of urban rock scenedom and a genuine shrug from an unseasoned songwriter: "What can I say that you can't say better?"

Scott Lucas's lyrics are smarter, wittier, and more observant than almost anything you'll hear out there today. His wry sense of humor is abundant here: the certain-to-be-a-radio-hit (and Who nod) "All the Kids Are Right" offers some great musings on rock stardom, such as "No one likes to feel like they've been had/It may be O.K. but you won't wear our T-shirts now," but Lucas's strongest suit has always been his original phrasing on timeworn subjects. He eschews the Gen X mope by stepping out positive on the Beatlesesque "Fine and Good" ("It's not too much to ask to feel this way"), and on the very next (and musically connected) song, "Lead Pipe Cinch," Lucas flirts with gross cliche but avoids it when he admits, "Something in my mind won't let my heart out of the darkness yet." Aside from the literary reference and the sense-over-passion implication, the simple line flows expertly in the song.

It's the dynamism of the fifteen songs on Pack Up the Cats that makes it such a satisfying listen. Every song isn't a classic, but each is compelling, and you'll find yourself wondering what's going to happen next.

-- Michael C. Harris

Belle & Sebastian
The Boy With the Arab Strap

There aren't many eight-piece groups in pop music worth their sheet music. The extra musicians in bands of more than five or, at the most, six pieces, nearly always mush up the sound and dilute the rhythm section. Van Morrison's bands have always been rare exceptions, but Scotland's Belle & Sebastian also have managed to control the excesses usually associated with larger ensembles. Instead of everyone playing at once all the time (E Street Band take a bow!), B&S use their extra staff only when it's time to build the dynamic to a dramatic crescendo. Otherwise, it's all about economy and playing in simple service to the song.

There are hints of all types of record-collector minutiae on their albums: a snatch of John Cale here, the Village Green-era Kinks there. Most of the points of reference are British, but even if you don't follow their brainwaves, there's no reason you can't enjoy the heavy melodiousness of the incredibly forlorn album opener, "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," or the nursery rhyme charm of "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" It matters not whether you catch the snatches of Nick Drake's "Northern Sky" in B&S's "Seymour Stein" or you know that old Mr. Stein has served as the head of Sire Records and signed many a punk band to his label.

Nah, it's easier just to groove to their sweeping rhythms and let the ripple effect take you away. Despite their rock critic allusions and intellectual cleverness (their first album, the long-out-of-print Tigermilk, was recorded in three days for Stow College's music project), Belle & Sebastian still carry enough musical weight to create something that speaks from the heart in a direct, affecting manner.

-- Rob O'Connor

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Michael C. Harris
Adam St. James
Rob O'Connor