Soul Coughing
Irresistible Bliss
(Slash/Warner Bros.)

On Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing's bow, bandleader M. Doughty and his compatriots (complemented immeasurably by genius producer Tchad Blake) seemed absolutely fearless, slamming together jazz, hip-hop and beat poetry with an abandon that was utterly refreshing. So the sight of producer David Kahne's name on this disc's credits is a bit disturbing: Even though Kahne cut his teeth on proto-alternative acts during the early Eighties, he's spent most of his time lately assisting mainstream artists like Tony Bennett. Fortunately, this association doesn't do as much damage as one might expect; Irresistible Bliss is more accessible and song-based than its predecessor, but you won't confuse it with the latest from Gloria Estefan. One reason is Blake, who mixed the disc, thereby ensuring that the bold snare sounds and odd noises that distinguished Vroom remain a part of the recipe. Another is producer Steve Fisk, of Dub Narcotic fame; he helmed two tracks here, and while the first one, "White Girl," feels a bit forced, the second, "4 out of 5," is thick, juicy and satisfying. Probably the most important factor, however, is the band, which is simply too twisted to play it absolutely straight. Kahne fails to get the best out of Doughty on "Lazybones," which doesn't really go anywhere (and takes too long getting there), but on "Paint" and the strangely jaunty "Disseminated," the players prove too loopy to be reined in. As for "Soundtrack to Mary," it's actually a pretty good pop song--something that most people never would have thought they'd hear from this band. Whether such compromises will actually help the bandmates when it comes time to pay the rent is uncertain. (Early returns don't look good.) Still, it says something about Soul Coughing that its campaign to pull back from the edge of the envelope is more interesting than most performers' attempts to bust through it.

--Michael Roberts

Local H
As Good As Dead

Maybe the inspiration for this guitar-drums duo was seeing its previous recordings ignored in favor of Silverchair's. But whatever: What's more important is that this grungy (not grunge) group has had it up to here and is announcing its frustrations to the world in the manner of Kurt Cobain. Although the feedback level on As Good As Dead is kinda weak, the attitudes are not; even when vocalist/guitarist Scott Lucas gets sick and tired of bellyaching, his words remain steadfastly grumpy. Honestly, if there can be audiences for bands imitating the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Grateful Damn Dead, Parliament, James Brown, the Stones and even the Black Crowes, for Pete's sake, how can the first decent Nirvana emulators miss? Just because Silverchair can't touch them doesn't mean you shouldn't.

--John Young

Zakk Wylde
Book of Shadows

As lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties, Wylde once interrupted an obligatory ten-minute solo to announce that he was seriously considering quitting the band to "kick some ass" as part of the then-ongoing Desert Storm operation. So shameless was the ploy that it appeared to embarrass even Ozzy, a man known for peeing on the Alamo and decapitating live poultry with his incisors. Judging by the material here, however, Wylde might have made a better soldier than a songwriter. Packed with more gothic pretensions than a Billy Idol video, Book of Shadows vacillates between lukewarm college rockers such as "Between Heaven and Hell" and cuts in which Wylde proves that he never met an effects pedal he didn't like. The only pleasant surprise here is the artist's voice, a potent weapon that calls to mind a less potent version of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. Nevertheless, Wylde's pipes might have been put to better use singing "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."

--John Jesitus

Various Artists
Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation

Most musicians feel that if a song is a good one, it can survive whatever is done to it. This theory is definitely put to the test on Sweet Relief II, a followup to a 1993 CD devoted to the music of Victoria Williams that raised funds to help offset her medical expenses. The tunesmith at the heart of the second edition is Vic Chesnutt, another musician with health problems. (He was paralyzed in an automobile accident during the Eighties.) But paying tribute this time around proves fairly problematic. An even more idiosyncratic songwriter than Williams, Chesnutt builds his work more on metaphors and imagery than on chords and riffs. Thus, his compositions are extremely fragile, and so dependent upon his quavery vocals as to make interpretation genuinely risky no matter what approach is taken. Should an artist covering his pieces simply try to clone him? No--the attempt by Dog's Eye View to do so on "Dodge" is notably tepid. How about pumping up the volume? Wrong again--Garbage's "Kick My Ass" and R.E.M.'s "Sponge" are meant to praise Chesnutt, but they wind up burying him in superfluous noise. Would going slick help? Not if the Indigo Girls' "Free of Hope" and Live's "Supernatural" are any indication. Mere star power doesn't do the trick, either: It's actually somewhat disturbing to realize that there's not much difference between "Guilty by Association" from Joe Henry and Madonna, and "Gravity of the Situation" by Nanci Griffith and Hootie & the Blowfish. To be kind, a few cuts here work, at least on some level: I liked Kristin Hersh's "Panic Pure" and Soul Asylum's "When I Ran Off & Left Her," and I didn't mind the contribution by Cracker. But the best number here is "God Is Good," by Victoria Williams and (surprise) Vic Chesnutt. Which suggests that anyone who really wants to help Chesnutt should head to the nearest record store and purchase recordings by him. You can find them filed under "C."



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