The Grifters
Ain't My Lookout
(Sub Pop)

For the past six years, the Grifters have made some beautifully fractured and schizophrenic music -- loose yet deceptively complex, chaotic and noisy but susceptible to moments of majestic pop splendor. Over the course of three albums, an EP, and a slew of singles, the Memphis quartet has fused the ragged blues and shimmying soul of their hometown with the damaged-pop legacy of Memphis iconoclast Alex Chilton. Along the way they've thrown in references to everyone from Brian Eno and Led Zeppelin to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. The Grifters' music is based on familiar pre- and postpunk concepts, yet they can throw some wicked curve balls, littering sweet melodies with thick gobs of gnarly distortion and thunderous percussion.

Ain't My Lookout, the band's fourth album and first for Sub Pop, is a marvelous showcase of the Grifters' musical schizophrenia, and it may be their masterpiece. Moving from the aching melancholy of "Pretty Notes" to the chaotic snarl of "Covered in Flies," the band has found a perfect balance between the yin and yang of chief songwriters/vocalists/guitarists Dave Shouse and Scott Taylor. Shouse favors mood pieces defined by inscrutable lyrics and oddball chord progressions, as proven on Lookout's "Return to Cinder" and "Mysterious Friends." Taylor writes more straightforward songs built around drunken nights, shaky mornings, and shattered romances. His "Parting Shot" wouldn't be out of place on a mid-Eighties Replacements album, while "Day Shift" melds the soul of swampy blues into a crunchy, slow-walking punk vamp.

Much like the austere Eureka EP from last year, Lookout finds the Grifters stripping away some of the dense layers of distortion and fuzz from their trademark sound, replacing them with ornate, symphonic flourishes on "Pretty Notes" and "My Apology" and quirky little "bop-bop" background vocals on "Mysterious Friends." They've also learned something about restraint. Although "Covered in Flies" and "Boho/Alt" explode in typically cacophonous bursts, the tension throughout most of Lookout is sustained. The threat of a sonic kaboom is merely implied, which adds an unnerving edge to nearly everything here, even to "Last Man Alive," a shamelessly bouncy and catchy pop gem by Shouse that should expand the perimeter of the Grifters' cozy indie-rock niche.

By John Floyd

Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

Handsome in his designer clothes and angelic nappy dreads, Maxwell styles himself as a modern-day urban love prophet in the time-honored tradition of Marvin Gaye. His ambitious debut album Urban Hang Suite offers a conceptual song cycle that purports to tell a fully rounded tale of true love in the tough inner city. Instead, Maxwell delivers just another set of tired R&B elevator music, with trite lyrics along the lines of "Gonna take you in the room suga'/Lock you up and love for days."

On first listen there's a lot to like, especially "Urban Theme" and "Welcome," on which the early Eighties-style R&B and pop-jazz grooves recall the bright days of Maze and the cool nights of Steely Dan. Soon, though, the flat production obscures Maxwell's passionate vocals and turns everything here into innocuous background music. Even capable collaborators such as Stewart Matthewman and Leon Ware A who've written with Sade and Marvin Gaye, respectively A can't save Maxwell from his own pretensions; nor can funk guitar legend Wah Wah Watson, making this Hang Suite just another empty room.

By Roni Sarig

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins +3

Maybe it's just the sorry state of jazz in general these days that would induce a creative giant like tenor sax man Sonny Rollins to release such a lightweight effort. Sure, there's plenty to like on this new set -- Rollins's dazzling improvisatory flights and some fine work from two different trios. Ultimately, though, +3 feels perfunctory when compared to Rollins's best work of the Fifties and Sixties.

He has never been what you'd call a minimalist player, but on +3 he's downright verbose. His endless soloing actually begins to grate during a lengthy rendition of the Dinah Washington chestnut "What a Difference a Day Makes" and his own "Biji." You keep waiting for Rollins to step back and let the sidemen take a few choruses, but it never happens. A spry ride through "They Say It's Wonderful" fares a little better, although it lacks the emotional depth of the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman version from the early Sixties. A glib interpretation of "Mona Lisa" adds nothing to the song, except a snarky countermelody, played on chimes, which opens and closes the song. "H.S.," a tribute to pianist Horace Silver, displays flashes of Rollins's brilliance, with an ingratiating R&B riff spiked with some subversive chordings a la Silver.

Despite these occasional flashes, +3 is about as deep as your average kitchen skillet. Although Rollins used to blow tenor with tongue firmly in cheek, he also knew when to play it straight A as he did in the company of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. Here, though, he seems content simply to blow first and think about it later.

By Bob Weinberg

Barenaked Ladies
Born on a Pirate Ship

The Ladies' 1991 album Gordon was one of the most auspicious debuts in recent rock history. Every one of its thirteen songs packed a hypnotic hook, quirky lyrics, and an instrumental exuberance that bordered on manic. The Canadian quintet shifted effortlessly from zany novelty pop ("Be My Yoko Ono") to gut-wrenching torch songs ("Wrap Your Arms Around Me"). They harmonized like angels, played like devils, and paid campy tribute even to their most regrettable musical influences, managing to make even Styx sound good.

Gordon shot to number one up north but was followed three years later with the tepid Maybe I Should Drive. Pirate Ship, the Ladies' new one, marks a tentative return to form. It's a steady pop album, a finger-snapper, but rarely more. "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank" is a smart-assed paean to country that finds bassist Jim Creegan sawing gamely on a fiddle. The energetic "I Know" might be one of the only songs ever to combine the trilling of a piccolo with a cowbell. "Spider in My Room" is a jazzy thumper that features chanted vocals by fellow Canadians the Stoney Park Pow-Wow Singers. Steven Page's supple tenor voice remains in fine form, capable of enlivening otherwise ho-hum ballads such as "Break Your Heart" and "Same Thing."

Despite some instrumental variety A a dobro and strings surface elsewhere A the band's sound has been pared down. Much of this is due to the departure of keyboardist Andy Creegan. His versatile tinkling provided much of the juice on Gordon, and the inventive arrangements on that album have given way to a duller, guitar-driven sound. The net loss is considerable. Pirate shows occasional signs of life, but nothing one might call genius.

By Steven Almond

Linda Smith
Nothing Else Matters
(Feel Good All Over)

Since the late Eighties, Baltimore-based Linda Smith has recorded and released a handful of likable home-studio cassettes of hooky folk-pop -- oblique songs of sighing resignation, uncertainty, and yearning that deftly jump from spare acoustic settings to jittery electric ones and back again. She taps into that same vein on her first CD Nothing Else Matters, seguing effortlessly from the chiming melancholy of "I'll Never See You Again" to the slow, dolorous "In No Uncertain Terms" to the rocking little instrumental "For Here or to Go" to the swirling pop-Middle Easternisms of "All of the Blue" (think Revolver-era Beatles) to the ominous, almost Eno-esque "Bright Side," whose lyrics drip with irony. She plays virtually everything here: strummy acoustic guitars, chattering electric ones, seesawing keyboards, straightforward percussion, and a kicky toy piano on "Little to Be Won." And as her own producer, Smith wisely leaves a lot of space between her instrumentation and her breathy talk-sung vocals, resulting in an uncluttered airiness that abets the effectiveness of her often wistful musings. (Feel Good All Over, P.O. Box 148428, Chicago, IL 60614)

By Michael Yockel

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Steven Almond
John Floyd
Roni Sarig
Bob Weinberg
Michael Yockel