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As for what she's on about, well, that always presents a problem: She sounds somber, bewildered, hyperactive, exasperated, lost, found, and yearning, among other things, but her elegantly wiggy lyrics -- "Kissing you's like kissing gravel/Kissing you's like sinking down into the moss" represents the straightforward end of the spectrum here -- make for shooting-from-the-hip interpretations at best. "I don't hear, I don't hear/I'm a free thinker/I'm empty enough to see you as I want," she declares on "Freeloader." Or as Hersh sings at the beginning of the title song, "Nice limbo you have here." Well, yeah.

-- Michael Yockel

Yo La Tengo
Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo

Living up to the mathematical equation in its title, Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo is where the depth of the revered Hoboken trio's greatness becomes apparent, where their soaring sonic experiments and embraceable pop charms shimmer with, well, genius. It's a two-disc, career-spanning collection of B-sides, rarities, compilation cuts, and outtakes that, despite the disparate nature of the bunch, hangs together like an honest-to-god, bona fide album. The songs are separated into vocal and instrumental halves, and though I would have mixed 'em all up, the strong stuff on both discs is easy to find: beautiful interpretations of songs by the Velvet Underground ("I'm Set Free"), Jackson Browne ("Somebody's Baby"), the Urinals ("Surfin' with the Shah"), Wire ("Too Late"), John Cale ("Hanky Panky No How"), and the Ramones ("Blitzkrieg Bop"); a two-part take on "From a Motel 6" that complements the version found on the band's '93 album Painful; some worthy outtakes from last year's Electr-O-Pura; and enough tastefully chaotic blasts from Ira Kaplan to back up his reputation as the underground's greatest guitar hero. And just to remind you that Yo La Tengo are human and that Genius + Love is a hodgepodge, you get a few honest-to-god, bona fide throwaways. After all, where else are you gonna put a noisy, indulgent, 26-minute version of "Sunsquased"?

-- John Floyd

Tommy Castro
Exception to the Rule
(Blind Pig)

Committed to blues that rock hard and sometimes shift into Memphis-style R&B, San Francisco newcomer Tommy Castro makes a favorable impression singing and playing electric guitar on an album of eight decent originals and hard-driving adaptions of Buddy Guy's "Can't Quit the Blues" and Freddie King's "Me and My Guitar." Stoked by sax, bass, and drums, Castro gives emphatic feeling to his lines without succumbing to an exaggerated sense of self-importance, as most guitarslingers are wont to do. Castro's guitar is at its most communicative, really, on the slow blues "How Long Must I Cry?," where eloquence exists in the subtleties of shading and phrasing. This song also has his most thoughtful lyrics, with Castro taking stock of the troubled world around him rather than offering the "bad luck" and "I like girls" tripe of his other songs. Keep your fingers crossed that Castro's success in the rock and roll marketplace -- where he has been making his move -- doesn't turn him into an image-smitten celeb.

-- Frank-John Hadley

Jimmy Scott
(Warner Bros.)

A lot of jazz singers have essayed gospel albums; few, though, have expanded the definition to include a song like the Talking Heads classic that is this set's title track. Jimmy Scott, of course, is even more one-of-a-kind than most other unique artists, and his finely wrought style is a perfect match for a sanctified concept album such as Heaven. In Scott's able hands, David Byrne's enigmatic lyric becomes both a quest for a peaceful afterlife and a weird, come-hither invitation. Nothing else here is quite as intriguing, but a stack of contemporary Christian tunes, several traditional hymns, and the Impressions' "People Get Ready" get the treatment from Scott and a hushed acoustic quartet led by pianist/arranger Jacky Terrasson. Along with the Heads number, it's "People Get Ready" that stands out here, in part because the Curtis Mayfield chestnut has been verging on the over-recorded for the past decade. In a testament to his talent, Scott delivers it with enough of a fresh twist to make the listener forget the question "Why not 'The Young Mod's Forgotten Story'?"

Ultimately, Heaven is a comforting continuation of Scott's fine string of Warner Bros. treasures and one that inspires you to pick songs and concepts for other records. A disc of Van Morrison covers? Elvis Costello's "Baby Plays Around"? TLC's "Waterfalls"? A collaboration with Babyface? All of these make at least as much sense as Talking Heads and gospel, and whet the appetite for more offbeat late-night sounds. So may the Lord bless and keep Jimmy Scott.

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Lee Ballinger
John Floyd
Frank-John Hadley
Raymond Tuttle
Rickey Wright
Michael Yockel