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Scott Weiland
12 Bar Blues
(Atlantic)

During Stone Temple Pilots' short but amazing three-album run, frontman Scott Weiland excelled at fulfilling the expectations of both his fans and his critics. From platinum-selling faux-grunge icon to drug-addled rock star to tortured and rehabbed artiste, Weiland drove public passion and critical opinion in opposite directions, ensuring his personal legend and creating reams of press with his mercurial behavior.

He's sober now, but his music continues to reflect a polarity of thought and action. "I've been to hell and back, man," he proclaims in the press bio issued with his solo debut 12 Bar Blues; a listen to the record allows one to share that journey. Wading through this miasma of Beatles and Bowie references to get to its few certified gems can be a real chore. Weiland's potluck mix of rock, funk, jazz, and dance styles is an interesting surprise, but the songs are so crowded with ideas, sounds, and instruments -- to exorcise Weiland's demons? to indulge his impulses? -- that the record never coheres, coming across instead as a heaping helping of cosmic debris.

Weiland co-produced the album with Blair Lamb, best-known for his work with Sheryl Crow. Multi-instrumentalist Victor Indrizzo (Magnificent Bastards, Samiam, Redd Kross) and musician-producer Daniel Lanois also lend significant support and texture to the proceedings. Weiland plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, piano, vibraphone, percussion, synths, mellotron, bass, and the ever-present beat box. But his greatest attribute -- and the strongest thing about the record -- continues to be his voice, which sounds more supple and genuine than ever, as he sheds the Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain comparisons of the STP era.

But there's still a lot of imitation here; Weiland seems more of a knockoff artist than an innovator. "Barbarella" and "Cool Kiss" find him in Bowie mode, as layers of noisy and fragile sounds clash in a dramatic blend of melody and cacophony. His hollow-cheeked and pale look further enhances the comparison to the Thin White Duke. "Where's the Man" is also recycled (from STP), and "Son," though a lovely sentiment, doesn't bother to hide its Beatlesisms.

Despite the thinness of the songwriting, there's much here to like, some real guilty pleasures. The cagey melody and the fuzzy guitar of "Desperation #5" and the no-parking-on-the-dance-floor synth bass of "Jimmy Was a Stimulator" immediately grab the ear. And "Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down," which also appears on the Great Expectations soundtrack, is a true, unqualified success. The seductive, string-driven cabaret number features Sheryl Crow on accordion and a stinging guitar that pierces Weiland's studied coolness with a resonance the rest of the album lacks.

Weiland should be commended for having the courage to take some bold risks, but in his eagerness to embrace a twelve-step program for a career comeback, he has mistakenly set himself up as his own higher power, choosing instant musical gratification over real growth.

-- Robin Myrick

Robbie Robertson
Contact from the Underworld of Redboy
(Capitol)

As the principal songwriter and lead guitarist of the Band, Robbie Robertson was responsible for some of rock's greatest songs, mythic compositions such as "The Weight" and "King Harvest (Has Truly Come)" that seemed to unfurl decades of Americana in four or five recorded minutes. As a solo artist he has been somewhat less significant. After years as Martin Scorsese's house composer, he returned with an eponymous 1987 solo album that showed the result of all that time in the film business. Helmed by Daniel Lanois, who would go on to produce Bob Dylan's 1997 Time Out of Mind (and his 1989 Oh Mercy), it was marred by longish talk-stories, overbearing atmospherics, and a chilling lack of spontaneity. Storyville (1991) explored New Orleans's rich musical heritage but still sounded embalmed.

In 1993 Robertson -- the son of a Jewish father and a Mohawk mother -- began to explore his Native American heritage. The following year he released Music for the Native Americans, a largely instrumental record that occasionally drifted into new-age territory. That was the bad news. The good news was that Robertson's own playing and writing were getting looser, and his spirit of experimentation didn't seem quite so overdetermined.

With Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, his second album of Native American music, Robertson has taken one step up and more than a few steps back. The album includes throat-singing, chanting, and other indigenous vocal styles, courtesy of various Native American performers. But Robertson has gone out of his way to avoid making a pure Indian folk record by spiking the mix. Four of the songs are collaborations with Marius de Vries, best-known for his work with Bjsrk, and four more are collaborations with Howie B, another Bjsrk associate, who has also worked with Tricky and U2. Dense with programmed drums, keyboards, and layered vocals, Contact is an intriguing idea -- a trip-hop record with some Native American fringe. Too bad it doesn't work.

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Steven Almond
John Floyd
Ben Greenman
Robin Myrick