Patti Smith
Gone Again

The most important artists don't try to reach for universal truths. Instead, they bare their very individual souls, and we hear ourselves reflected in their voices. After removing herself from the musical limelight for more than fifteen years, surfacing only once for the 1988 offering Dream of Life, protopunk Patti Smith has returned, artistically naked, to reflect on the recent deaths of her husband (ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith), brother Todd, friend Robert Mapplethorpe, former bandmate Richard Sohl, and musical confidant Kurt Cobain. In doing so, she has proven, once again, that she is one our most important artists.

Gone Again shows an expected maturity compared to Smith's groundbreaking Seventies albums Horses and Easter. Gone is the rage and venom that defined those sets. It has been replaced with raw open emotion, more inviting than abrasive. But none of the poetry or power is missing: This isn't an album of complacency, but rather one of introspection and acceptance.

You can hear it in every choice she makes. Throughout most of "Wing," Smith's voice floats cleanly, intoning "I was free/I needed nobody/It was beautiful/It was beautiful." Then, suddenly, Smith emits a low guttural rumble as if to deny her own statement, sharing the subtleties and textures of her emotion and grief.

Musically, the album reflects those varied textures, shifting gears from song to song. The shifts are the processes of loss and acceptance, the waves of pain, emptiness, and discontinuity that pass through the body after a loss. Whether it's the title cut (a heavy rocker that pulls rhythmic cadences from Native American chanting), "Beneath the Southern Cross" (an acoustic, half-spoken lament punctuated by ethereal keening from Jeff Buckley), or the Cobain tribute "About a Boy" (which begins with haunting dissonance), Smith willingly and openly explores those textures and shares them with us.

She even takes the risk of closing the album with "Farewell Reel," a letter to her late husband that easily could have come across as pure cornball. Instead, the simplicity and honesty of the acoustic ballad make it a touching conclusion to a brilliant album.

-- Brian Rochlin

Red House Painters
Songs for a Blue Guitar
(Island Independent)

On his San Francisco band's previous outings, Red House Painters guitarist/vocalist Mark Kozelek established himself as a meticulous craftsman who didn't write songs so much as he built intricate structures that sheltered simple riffs, delicate melodies, and dark, somber lyrics about love, betrayal, and loss. The band studied those songs more than played them, with the care of archaeologists brushing away centuries of dirt at an excavation site. At times, the Painters will pause and explore a song's dynamics for a few minutes with whatever sonic tools are handy -- acoustic guitars, snatches of piano, soaring feedback -- while the bass and drums keep things at the band's preferred pace, an extremely slow crawl.

On Songs for a Blue Guitar, Kozelek once again balances his folky instincts with a couple of extended numbers that allow the band to roam. The twelve-minute "Make Like Paper" includes an extended passage of frenetic, swirling electric guitar and closes with a plodding groove that recalls Crazy Horse without the sloppiness.

What distinguishes this album from previous Painters efforts is the inclusion of covers -- Yes's prog-rock staple "Long Distance Runaround," the Cars' "All Mixed Up," and Wings' "Silly Love Songs." None of them sounds remotely like the original; instead they sound, well, like Red House Painters songs. Ric Ocasek's lyrics in "All Mixed Up" -- "She's always out making pictures/She's always out making scenes/ She's always out the window/When it comes to making dreams" -- are perfectly Painter-ish in their wistfulness when compared to such Kozelek-penned lines as "She comes apart at the seams/'Cause she never dreams/And she lays up awake/'Cause her feelings ache" (from "Another Song for a Blue Guitar").

The extended reworking of "Silly Love Songs" is Blue Guitar's crowning achievement. After the meditative intro, the band walks through the song at an agonizingly slow tempo, taking Paul McCartney's cheeky tune apart and rebuilding it as a dysfunctional dirge. By the time he gets to the chorus, Kozelek's intonement of "I ... love ... you" sounds less like a cheerful declaration than adequate grounds for a restraining order. Ultimately, the song encapsulates why Red House Painters are such a pleasurable listen: Kozelek crafts adventurous pop-rock for adults who don't mind their hooks being leavened with loads of irony.

-- Jim Murphy

Rebecca St. James

Language is not just some big Scrabble game of coincidences. I promise. For instance, there's a reason why the word "treacle" rhymes with the word "fecal." I don't think Rebecca St. James -- bless her Jesus-lovin' heart -- quite realizes this yet. At least, there's no indication on her second record, the subtly titled God.

Following the formula that worked so well for Jars of Clay, the young Christian chanteuse and her producer, Todd T., have gone from proselytizing via bubblegum rock to proselytizing via alternative rock. Which means that the nineteen-year-old singer now sounds more like Alanis Morissette than Debbie Gibson. Lots of jangly guitars and pumped-up drums and airbrushed photos of our willowy heroine, who looks like she wandered off the set of Beverly Hills 90210. And don't forget the scads of really, really deep lyrics, such as, "What am I that He loves me so much he would die/All that I can say is/It's God, truly God."

I am banking on the notion that the Almighty gets off on a more subtle invocation. Or, to put it more bluntly: God, this album bites.

-- Steven Almond

New Kingdom
Paradise Don't Come Cheap
(Gee Street)

New Kingdom are hip-hop hippies, but the yelling and blurry noise on Paradise Don't Come Cheap, their second album, mark them as children of Cypress Hill more than the spawn of Native Tongues. Jason Furlow spews blunted visions of Utopia and a suburban generation escaping "plastic furniture surroundings" by way of rap, reefer, comic books, and a bunch of fantasy-addled stuff that's hard to parse.

Better, then, to simply laugh along with Furlow and musical partner Sebastian Laws as they kick out the post-Sabbath jams and sing of an alternate universe in which "Unicorns Were Horses" and the cops won't bust you for bugging the neighbors with all-night practice sessions. It's a pretty sure bet that Furlow isn't sporting an entirely straight face when, on the subject of influences, he announces that the Muppets' "Animal was my favorite drummer." One cut later, on "Co Pilot," the team is dropping enough non sequitur references -- Bigfoot, Fantagraphics, Abraxas, Rodney Allen Rippy -- to convince me that they might apply for jobs as pop-culture professors down at the local community college. "From Cleveland to Brooklyn to Bleecker" aren't all the miles they travel; for one thing, there's the Vegas obsession manifested in the cover art. But wherever they go, New Kingdom are definitely frequent flyers.

-- Rickey Wright

Finn Brothers
Finn Brothers

With the long history of fraternal feuding in rock -- from the Everly Brothers to the Kinks' Davies duo to the Gallagher boys of Oasis -- it's nice to see a pair of musical siblings who can't seem to get enough of each other. Ever since 1977, when Tim Finn invited his little brother Neil to join his modestly successful new-wave outfit, New Zealand's Split Enz, the two have set separate courses in pop music that keep bumping into one another: Tim went solo in '84 and Neil took over Split Enz; two years later Neil broke up the band and formed Crowded House; Tim joined Neil's band in '91. This year, with interest in Crowded House long since waned, the Finn Brothers have decided to go duo.

Their debut release is a modest, understated album that combines the conventional beauty we've come to expect from Neil's melodic work with Crowded House and the eccentric charm typical of Tim's edgy, arty rock. So where the warbly synth of "Eyes of the World" is all new wave Tim, the piano balladry of "Where Is My Soul" reeks of popster Neil. "Only Talking Sense," meanwhile, combines Tim's angular minimalism with Neil's plaintive croon. And just when you think you've heard it all before, the Finns offer the bossa nova bounce of "Mood Swinging Man" and the tango sway of "Paradise" -- evidence, perhaps, that the lounge revival has reached Kiwi country.

Ultimately, though, it's Neil -- the better singer and songwriter of the family -- who makes the album memorable. Maybe that's why, more than any other rock siblings, the Finn brothers remind me of the unrelated Simon and Garfunkel. Which, come to think of it, explains a lot about Tim's less-than-inspiring solo career.

-- Roni Sarig

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Steven Almond
Jim Murphy
Brian E. Rochlin
Roni Sarig
Rickey Wright