Jerry Cantrell
Boggy Depot

After five platinum-selling records with hard rock gladiators Alice in Chains, guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell's first solo album finds him in the catbird's seat. The much-publicized drug problems of Chains' vocalist Layne Staley has resulted in the band losing some steam and touring opportunities in recent years, but Cantrell's new Boggy Depot CD neatly fills the gap during his full-time group's current hiatus, and may just free him from reliance on any strung-out associates from his past.

Named for his father's Oklahoma home, Boggy Depot features Cantrell on guitar, piano, and vocals, plus a host of guest bassists, including Norword Fisher (Fishbone), Rex Brown (Pantera), Les Claypool (Primus), and the Chains' Mike Inez. That group's drummer Sean Kinney played on the entire record, and Fishbone's Angelo Moore contributed horns to two tracks. Considering that Cantrell wrote many of Chains' hits (including "Rooster" and "Would?") and co-produced Boggy Depot with the group's regular producer Toby Wright, it's no surprise to hear him burning and wailing through comfortable ground here.

Cantrell's voice is clean and earnest, and his use of AIC's cool, multilayered harmony style continues to sound great even without Staley's raspy growl. Cantrell's customary sonic friction and warped guitar figures are also well done here, particularly on rockers such as "Dickeye," the fiery "Jesus Hands," and the terrific minor-chord acoustic tango "Cut You In." Cantrell allows himself a number of highly confessional moments here as he sets the record's main theme -- the consequences of love and destruction. "Breaks My Back" captures the dichotomy, described in many of the songs, that love is rejected only at a price or enjoyed at a significant sacrifice. In "Between," a nifty hard-pop number with glowing harmonies, he blunts the no-win relationship with a sugary chorus straight out of the Who's "The Kids Are Alright." But Cantrell's independence is best represented in "Cold Piece"; the spare, spooky groove is adorned with free-floating guitar, piano, and horn parts as Cantrell defends lost causes and free will.

While there's no doubt that Cantrell is capable of being a star in his own right, there is also a dogged repetition to some of the melodies and lyrics that somewhat dampens the spirit of the album. "Settling Down" and "My Song" demonstrate Cantrell's willingness to repeat a phrase over and over in an attempt to convey introspection, but a healthy sense of dissonance and the occasional raging guitar rush save the day. Overall, Boggy Depot is a promising look at Cantrell's past and future that confirms his reach and survival as an artist beyond Alice in Chain's ultimate fate -- whatever that may be.

-- Robin Myrick

Jerry Cantrell performs Wednesday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 800-759-4624. Headliners Metallica and opening act Days of the New are also on the bill. The show is sold out.

Mike Ireland & Holler
Learning How to Live
(Sub Pop/Sire)

While the punked-up sound of the insurgent country movement degenerates into messy bohemian doodlings (e.g., Trailer Bride, Scroat Belly), ex-Starkweathers frontman Mike Ireland and his new band Holler have found an even more subversive honky-tonk strain. Namely, countrypolitan, the string-laden and much-maligned subgenre introduced in the Sixties by producer Owen Bradley and protege Patsy Cline and perfected over the next decade in the brilliant collaborations between knob-twiddler Billy Sherrill and his bodacious stable of talent, which included George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich. Long the bane of purists who lean toward the tough, swaggering sound of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Jones pre-Sherrill, countrypolitan nonetheless produced some of Nashville's greatest hits, from Rich's "Life's Little Ups and Downs" and Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."

Ireland isn't writing them that good yet, but Learning How to Live, the Kansas City-based singer/songwriter's debut with Holler, has more than a few that come close, and he and co-producer Marvin Etzioni have draped most of them in the finery of countrypolitan. Meaning you get a beautiful glockenspiel at the beginning of "Christmas Past," some lovely Floyd Cramer flourishes (compliments of guest pianist Benmont Tench) on "Worst of All," a majestic string section on the aching title track, and an ominous cello slicing through "House of Secrets." That's not to say this is all mushy and gooey like countrypolitan at its worst: Throughout the set, especially on "Don't Call This Love" and "Headed for a Fall," Michael Lemon's lead guitar snaps like a string of firecrackers, a perfect match for the piercing twang in Ireland's vocals. And Ireland's lyrics are steeped in the politics of the barroom and the bedroom, on weepers such as "Worst of All" and the raging and vindictive "House of Secrets." And with "Christmas Past" Ireland has concocted an ode of seasonal pathos worthy of Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December."

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John Floyd
Adam St. James
Robin Myrick