For the Meat Puppets, the key has always been striking the right balance. When the Kirkwood brothers, Curt and Cris, and drummer Derrick Bostrom allow their music and words to drift on a patient narcotic breeze, their tunes are positively addictive--but when they rev up their guitars and try to make like a rock band, they can come across like a second-rate cover act with a Lynyrd Skynyrd jones. Too High to Die, the 1993 disc that finally won the threesome the popularity they've deserved for over a decade, took the former tack, praise the Lord, and for the most part, their latest does as well. Not that the Kirkwoods have entirely purged their duller tendencies: For example, "Scum," the lead single here, starts out with a screaming guitar burst that sounds like one of the false endings in "Free Bird". Just as a feeling of panic is starting to set in, however, the boys' axes assume a more modest posture, transforming the song into the kind of peyote-fueled narrative these guys were born to deliver (if the lyrics make sense to you, drink a pot of hot coffee and call a doctor in the morning). Joke! is no grand departure, and it's somewhat minor by comparison with other parts of the Puppets' canon, but the album succeeds by offering sonic hallucinations that are worth sharing. Really! I'm not kidding!--Michael Roberts
Ian McCulloch is not growing old gracefully. When his voice burns at both ends from cigarette smoke, alcohol and other ravages of time, he doesn't exude either Billie Holiday's charm or Trent Reznor's aggression. Actually, he would sound like Bruce Springsteen if the Boss sang from somewhere other than his diaphragm. What used to be the Brit frontman's Zenlike sexy selling point now needs paving--and unfortunately, his latest batch of musicians (ex-Bunnyman Will Sergeant, bassist Leon De Sylva and drummer Tony McGuigan) don't contribute much more than racket and cliches. At best ("Mirrorball," "Who's Been Sleeping in My Head?"), the assemblage mimics Green Day or the Soup Dragons. At worst ("Sister Pain"), Electrafixion could pass for April Wine that didn't age well. The single "Zephyr," released a year ago, is merely familiar; a couple of tunes co-written by Johnny Marr, the onetime Smiths' guitarist who assisted McCulloch on his better solo efforts, are thoroughly unremarkable; and "Hit by Something" buries its melody beneath a recurring flourish of cymbals and metal. Although it probably wasn't intended, Burned is an appropriate tag for this disappointing disc. Because that's how people who buy it will feel.--Susan Dunlap
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This Is Acid Jazz: New Voices Take Two
On previous editions of this long-running series, the last-call funk tracks seemed avant-garde as long as producers guided their electronic atmospherics and kept the mellow rhythms moving gracefully. With New Voices, however, samples and hip-hop beats are put on the back burner in favor of the latest acid-jazz innovation: the somewhat humorous boast "real musicians playing real instruments." The likably mellow advice offered by Rad.'s "Time to Change" and the robotic salsa that marks No Se's "Cigar" provide nice lures for the ensuing aimlessness of the other cuts here. But the guys working the saxophones and guitars don't play with the mood any better than the singers; they couldn't keep a cutting edge if you gave them their own whetstones.--John Young
Music for All Occasions
The more you listen to the Mavericks, the more you wonder how they've managed to make a name for themselves in that great homogenizer known as the Nineties country-music scene. First of all, they're from Miami, a town with a C&W tradition that rivals Budapest's. Secondly, singer-songwriter Raul Malo has a vocal authenticity that's ever so much craggier than the Alan Jackson soundalikes the establishment seems to prefer. And, perhaps more to the point, the combo's members actually appear interested in exploring their music rather than simply ladling out watered-down tunes and hobnobbing on Music City Tonight. There's a playfulness infusing this disc, from the corny Fifties cover art to "Something Stupid," the dippy Frank and Nancy Sinatra staple tackled by Malo and Maverick Robert Reynolds' beloved, Trisha Yearwood. Such cheekiness usually doesn't go over big in Nashville, and perhaps on their next CD, the performers will be forced to retrench, as they did on 1993's worthy but somewhat compromised What a Crying Shame. But for now, Occasions reveals that a good band can go to the Grand Ole Opry and still remain a good band.--Roberts