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SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: 

*** Those Bastard Souls DEBT AND DEPARTURE (V2)

Guitar rock that isn't flashy or studiously lo-fi isn't exactly the flavor of the month, but it is exactly what Those Bastard Souls deliver on their major-label debut. Led by Dave Shouse, one of two singer-songwriter-guitarists in the Memphis band the Grifters, the Souls have mutated from a one-man home-recording project into an indie-rock supergroup of sorts. The current line-up features members of Chicago blues deconstructionists Red Red Meat, the late Jeff Buckley's band, Shudder To Think, and the Dambuilders. Tight and precise, the band don't so much tear into Shouse's moody songs as dissect them -- there are no wasted motions, no superfluous notes. Yet Debt and Departure is anything but bloodless -- from the immaculate piano bass notes on "Telegram" to ex-Dambuilder Joan Wasser's eerie riffing on "Remembering Sophie Rhodes," there's a controlled passion here. Shouse's melancholy means the album never exactly takes off, but, grounded, it's a power all the same.

-- Ben Auburn

** The Hot Club of Cowtown TALL TALES (Hightone)

This fiddle/guitar/upright bass trio from Austin embrace Western swing and the swinging small-group jazz of the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli Hot Club of France band. Their lyrics take a sprightly tongue-in-cheek slant, and the playing's always peppery -- whether they're gliding through romantic numbers like "Always and Always" or stepping lively to "Wildcat," their version of one of the famed 1930s duets from guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti. Elana Fremerman's sweet, long fiddle lines are especially charming. Really, it's all entertaining. Yet the Hot Club of Cowtown seem so enamored of their influences that they bring little of their own to the game -- not even a better-than-just-adequate vocalist, though all three members sing. With nothing to distinguish their efforts, they're merely a signpost for the music's richer past.

-- Ted Drozdowski


You won't get much argument on the title of this career-retrospective from us, though by last year Eddie Spaghetti was bestowing the titular distinction to his tourmates, Zeke. For a band who started out by declaring that all their songs sounded the same, the Supersuckers got better mileage out of punk-rock cliché than anyone since the Dictators -- they haven't had a stylistic tune-up since 1994's La Mano Cornuda, but they haven't needed one either. By the time they pulled off a mid-'90s foray into country, it felt almost obligatory. But then again a big part of the Supersuckers was their ability to redeem rock's obligatory gestures in the pursuit of nothing more serious than a helluva good time, and Must've Been High (here represented by three songs) allowed them to flash -- just once, never again -- the crocodile tears behind their joker's smile.

So yeah, over the course of a decade the 'Suckers danced with the Devil and Willie Nelson and Steve Earle, too, and most of their ideas were brilliant, though the second half of this disc yanks all their skeletons out of the closet. The cover of Ice Cube's "Dead Homiez" always sounded like a funnier idea than it turns out to be; and most of the assorted B-sides and comp tracks simply confirm the 'Suckers' judgment about which ones to leave in the can. Two songs from the band's early days in Arizona as the Black Supersuckers are included, as is one from an alter-ego appearance on Sympathy for the Record Industry as the Junkyard Dogs, but even diehards could probably take 'em or leave 'em. And I suddenly realize I've been talking about the 'Suckers in the past tense -- apologies all around. Truth be told, the new Supersuckers album (out in October) is at least as good as this and maybe better, about which more in a couple months.

-- Carly Carioli

** Lords of Acid EXPAND YOUR MIND (Antler Subway)

For some reason, Belgium's Lords of Acid, 13 years after they began, have decided to go lounge, abandoning a major share of the techno textures they helped invent. The result is the least satisfying LOA CD yet, a nice enough piece of Kid Creole-ish dance-floor chatter but entirely lacking in the craziness that was so crucial to the group's sensibility -- the dark drama, heart-stopping beats and bass syncopations, and leering lusty put-ons by LOA's vocal comedienne, Nikki Van Lierop, that made CDs like Our Little Secret so unsettling. Neither do Expand Your Mind's many remixes of LOA classics -- "Lover," "Rough Sex," "I Sit on Acid," "Rubber Doll," -- satisfy. The LOA originals took busy burlesque to the limits of directional complexity. The new ones go everywhere at once, and nowhere. Fans may well like hearing LOA cut themselves to bits; other listeners should stick with Our Little Secret.

-- Michael Freedberg

*** L7 SLAPP-HAPPY (Wax Tadpole)

My take on L7 will forever be tainted by one glorious, delirious, vivacious set witnessed while the band were sharing a stage with the Beastie Boys a few years ago. From "The Girl Can't Help It" on, rock and roll sinks or swims on rhythm (it's different with "rock," but let's not sweat the semantics), and when the Cali quartet -- now a trio with the exit of bassist Gail Greenwood -- are at their best, thrust is the most magnificent element of their sound.

A return to indieville after years in the Warner Bros. corral, Slapp-Happy finds a variety of ways to cast the incredible forward motion that's made the band's post-Ramones punk pop so glorious, delirious, and vivacious. Any album that begins with Donita Sparks riding a wave of mutilation while urping "aghhh" is working the classic L7 mode, and speed-metal mantras like "Crackpot Baby" have no problem whooshing you away. Ditto for "Lackey" and "On My Rockin' Machine," which find the gals understanding the emotional implication of every tempo they employ. "Got some lemons/Make some kick-ass lemonade," they proclaim on "Livin' Large." The ladies may be livin' small, but Slapp-Happy proves they've still got the juice.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Julie Miller BROKEN THINGS (Hightone)

The Nashvillean-by-way-of-Austin Miller is a singer/songwriter with connections to such roots artists as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Victoria Williams. Boasting a high, winsome voice as delicate as a piece of china and occasionally as cutting as a broken bottle, she established herself on 1997's Blue Pony, and she followed that up by touring (with her husband, "hard country" artist Buddy Miller) as an opening act for Emmylou.

On Broken Things she continues the well-traveled Americana path into ragged rock sounds and gentle melodies, with her ethereal voice streaking past the thunderchords on the edgy, hard-driving original "I Need You." She also displays a penchant for gentle, folky melodies on material of the sort that has prompted artists from jazz singer Jimmy Scott and country hit machine Brooks & Dunn to record her stuff. Harris and Williams add some crafty background harmonies, and Miller teams up with Earle for the finest ode to the wreckage caused by cocaine in some time, the lurching, evocative "Strange Lover."

-- Bill Kisliuk

** Face to Face IGNORANCE IS BLISS (LadyLuck Records)

Describing their fourth album, Ignorance Is Bliss, Face to Face use terms like "new direction" and "evolution," words that can be cause for genuine concern when you're dealing with a back-to-basics punk band. Yeah, true music fans shouldn't be averse to a little change now and again, but why fix what's not broken? And, sure enough, on "In Harm's Way," vocalist/songwriter Trevor Keith asks just that question: "Why do we need to change when we were perfect yesterday?" By slowing down the tempos and writing songs for the first time as a team, Face to Face do hit the mark a couple of times, but they lose more than they gain when it comes to aggression, urgency, and edge -- they just don't sound punk enough anymore. Keith's lyrics are as honest as ever, and his delivery is every bit as earnest as it has been in the past, but that's not supported by the musical muscle it requires.

-- Robin A. Rothman

** Catie Curtis A CRASH COURSE IN ROSES (Rykodisc)

Catie Curtis has a growing reputation as a sensitive singer/songwriter, with a warm, engaging alto that gently invites listeners to join her as she explores the shifting emotional landscape of her heart with quiet grace. Her strong suit is subtlety, but in the world of pop music subtlety doesn't count for much, so Curtis faces the same problem that plagues many of today's young folk musicians: how to appeal to a wider pop audience without forsaking the music's acoustic roots.

On Crash Course she's backed by a solid quartet of session players, and though they have the entire spectrum of American folk music to draw on, the arrangements stick to predictable folk/pop formulas, with the easy-listening vibe ensuring that nothing really takes off. When Curtis shows a bit of lyrical and vocal spunk -- as on the poignant ode to lost love "World Don't Owe Me," the saucy intellectual seduction "Stay Up All Night," or "What's the Matter," in which a small town's lone bohemian questions the small minds that surround her -- she fares better. But for the most part both singer and the band play it too safe.

-- J. Poet

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