Hootie & the Blowfish
Fairweather Johnson

Listening to this album put me in mind of a line from an episode of the Seventies sitcom Sanford and Son. In it, Fred, played by Redd Foxx, describes a particularly bland meal. "After dinner," he adds, "I belched and it tasted like a handkerchief." --Michael Roberts

Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes Under the Stars

This band from Dayton, Ohio, features a bunch of fortysomethings who rock like they're playing hooky from their day jobs--and for many years, they were. Lead voice Robert Pollard is an ex-schoolteacher whose lyrics, which skillfully mix high-minded poetics and balls-out attitude, perfectly complement the group's sound--a Who-influenced British Invasion shtick that feels a-day-ahead-of-the-rest fresh for reasons that aren't readily apparent. The act's low-fi garage technique and notably short attention span (average song length is two minutes) seemingly belies an arty, carefully crafted style, as does its prolific nature (the dozen or so Guided by Voices albums generally sport between twenty and thirty songs each). But in truth, these lugs put a great deal of effort into every recording--and it pays off on Stars, their latest, and probably best, release. While earlier discs, including the foursome's 1994 opus, Bee Thousand, were impressive but often inconsistent, almost all of this CD's two dozen tracks are memorable--and at least five songs ("Cut-Out Witch," "The Official Ironmen Rally Song," "Big Boring Wedding," "Sheetkickers" and "Redmen and Their Wives") feel like instant classics. The reason? Even though the combo covers less sonic ground than before, the concentration on straightahead melodies, power chords and driving beats results in unexpected musical growth, especially on tunes like "Your Name Is Wild," "Atom Eyes," "Drag Days," "Acorns & Orioles" and "Don't Stop Now." Such progress hasn't convinced the players that fame and fortune await: On "Bright Paper Werewolves," Pollard sings, "They finally got recognized/So they left in obscurity and misery." Only you can prevent this sad and unnecessary prospect from becoming a reality.--Steve Boland

Dar Williams
Mortal City
(Razor & Tie)

Swallow Hill types are on this disc like cat hair on a Fudgsicle, and it's not hard to figure out why. Williams has all the neo-folkie bases covered, from pipes that make up in dogged consistency what they lack in genuine spunk to a lyrical self-obsession that is at once her greatest strength and most profound weakness. Stand-out selections here include the catchy but largely incomprehensible "As Cool As I Am" and the collection's dramatic title track. Elsewhere, though, Williams attempts to strike a balance between silliness and sensitivity without distinguishing herself in either arena. Ditties such as "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York" and "The Christians and the Pagans" reveal a canny eye for detail and enough musical acumen to get a few hips swaying, but the strained poetics of songs like "February" are exactly the kind of thing that makes folk a bad word in the mainstream marketplace. Moreover, the quintessential niceness with which this entire production is rendered left a bad taste in my mouth.--John Jesitus

Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

The modern soul renaissance continues apace. Rather than ejaculating lock-step gangsta cliches or lachrymose Boyz II Men impressions, Maxwell, a Brooklynite of West Indian and Puerto Rican extraction, follows the D'Angelo example: He uses as his starting point the work of the most ambitious soulsters from the last thirty years and attempts to give it a personal spin. He's not wholly successful, which is no surprise--after all, even Marvin Gaye and Prince took a while to fully subsume their influences. But in the end, the album actually justifies its pretentious title. While a few individual pieces stand out from the pack--"Welcome" is probably the finest effort here--the offering's most enjoyable aspect is the way in which it ebbs and flows, changing musical moods when Maxwell's romantic narrative dictates, yet retaining its structural integrity from moment to moment and from track to track. There's a certain monotony at play toward the end of the disc (in an effort at upping the sensuality factor, our host allows the mood to congeal), but the mere fact that Maxwell holds his listeners' attention throughout is something to celebrate. Simultaneously conservative and forward-looking, Suite is.--Roberts


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