PLAYLIST

Soul Asylum
Let Your Dim Light Shine
(Columbia)

Back in the days when Say What You Will... and Made to Be Broken (from 1984 and 1986, respectively) were new, a lot of us had high hopes for this band: Its loud, fast numbers weren't all that distinctive, but they were a lot of fun, and Dave Pirner's corny ballads appeared so infrequently that they were easy to overlook. Now, however, it's another story. Clearly, Pirner is in an extremely conflicted period: For every song meant to re-establish his indie credibility, there are two that suggest he's been reading his mainstream reviews far too closely. "To My Own Devices" and "Promises Broken" are country-flavored ditties sure to appeal to those folks who thought they were hip for liking "Runaway Train"; the extremely self-conscious "String of Pearls" comes off like Generation-X Springsteen (eesh); and "Eyes of a Child" is an exercise in sentimentality that even Leo Buscaglia might find hard to swallow. The rockers are less egregious, but probably not for the reasons Pirner intends. "Misery," the first single, has a faux-Nirvana lyric, but its chorus is as catchy as something by the Sweet, while "Hopes Up" disrupts a middling verse with a hook straight off of a late-Seventies Kiss LP. Producer Butch Vig makes everything sound fine, but given the material with which he had to work, that doesn't help much. Like Paul Westerberg before him, Pirner seems determined to prove that he's become a respectable grownup. Guess he forgot that respectability can be pretty damn boring.--Michael Roberts

The Muffs
Blonder and Blonder
(Reprise)

On one level, the Muffs are riot-grrrl lite--a woman-led punk-pop act that's snotty, not quite angry, and very cute. But such a description is too condescending. While male-fronted outfits using many of the same tricks--e.g., Green Day--have enjoyed multiplatinum success, this L.A. trio toils in cultish obscurity, and that's just not fair. The Muffs' shtick is simple and pure: On the L7-ish "Ethyl My Love," the rollicking "Won't Come Out to Play" and the hook-filled, hummable "Sad Tomorrow" (Blonder's first single), they offer basic, tuneful pleasure even as they cop enough punk attitude to scare the folks. If those other kids can sell millions, the Muffs deserve to do so, too.--Steve Boland

Various Artists
Hillbilly Fever! Volumes 1-5
(Rhino)

Right now, Rhino is the preeminent reissue label in the United States, with a reputation for musical acuity and respect for source material from a wide variety of styles. However, the company also has a tendency to overreach--to imply that each of its collections is the definitive look at a particular topic. So suffice it to say that Hillbilly Fever! is far from the final word on all things hillbilly. Sometimes, in fact, the tracks chosen for inclusion don't seem to belong here, period: For example, volume 5, subtitled Legends of Country Rock, includes cuts by the Lovin' Spoonful, a band that existed on the distant outskirts of the country-rock movement, and Bob Dylan, who flirted with country music only briefly. Fever is at its best, then, not as an aural history of the form, but as several hours' worth of damn fine music. Volume 1 (Legends of Western Swing) supplements offerings from stars Bob Wills and Spade Cooley with relative obscurities by the likes of the Fort Worth Doughboys; volume 2 (Legends of Honky Tonk) brings you Hank Williams, Red Foley, George Jones and more; volume 3 (Legends of Nashville) showcases the Louvin Brothers, Ernest Tubb and their peers; and volume 4 (Legends of the West Coast) finds room for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Tex Ritter. The conclusions reached in the liner notes of these editions are open to question, but there's no doubt that a lot of the songs represent a peculiar, and wonderful, peak of American popular music. Moreover, the most memorable of these songs don't age. They exist in a universe all their own--a place where, for reasons unknown, there are plenty of bulls but absolutely no bullshit.--Roberts

Vanessa Daou
Zipless: Songs From the Works of Erica Jong
(MCA)

If you're going to put out a terrible album, don't go halfway: Churn out the worst piece of shit imaginable--a platter that will have listeners alternately laughing, grimacing and shaking their heads. In other words, put together Zipless, a collection of ten drippy rhythm tracks built upon the poetry of Erica Jong, whose hackneyed imagery and softcore babblings are to the works of Anais Nin what Rod McKuen's are to Walt Whitman's. Listening to Daou--who sounds like Betty Boop with a severe case of laryngitis--deliver the words to "My Love Is Too Much" ("It is cooking you seek, not love/Cooking with sex coming after/Cool sex that speaks to the penis alone/And not the howling chaos of the heart") is funnier than Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura, Pet Detective combined. Put this sucker in a time capsule.--Roberts

 
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