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Parlor James
Old Dreams

Parlor James is a pop Tarnation imitation. Tarnation weaves forlorn country-folk music and alt-rock gloom into spooky American Gothic laments. Parlor James takes that formula and dilutes it for popular consumption with psychedelic guitars and upbeat melodies. On Old Dreams, the result is wildly uneven. Some songs are lovely and haunting, more are cloying and forgettable. Lead singer Amy Allison has a voice very much like Tarnation's Paula Frazer--twangy, breathy and a bit ghostly. The best tracks are the ones on which she sings over sparse arrangements, especially "Don't Go Downtown" and the traditional "Clementine." Unfortunately, bandmate Ryan Hedgecock also sings; whenever he does, Parlor James' music devolves into bland, countrified grunge that isn't helped by bland, overproduced musicianship. (Michelle Goldberg)

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Home Grown
Act Your Age
Outpost Recordings

This lively foursome from Southern California, brimming with infectious poppy punk energy, is impossible not to like. Interesting song themes and frisky lyrics give Act Your Age a fresh, exciting sound. While titles like "Surfer Girl" and "Bad News Blair" come across as fluffy, the subject matter isn't always light. "She's Anti" is about a high school girl who assassinates the cheerleading squad; "Last Nite Regrets" tells of a guy who regrets sleeping with his friend. On "Wow, She Dumb," Home Grown sings, "Stop acting like you're sad. I hate to hear you cry/You're like an episode of Days of Our Lives." Like a more thoughtful version of local cools Stunt Monkey, Home Grown offers a furiously upbeat sound and lyrics that are silly without being frivolous. (Sarah Quelland)

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Cowboy Junkies
Miles From Our Home

The Cowboy Junkies have always hovered around the line that separates genuinely soulful, mature pop from corny "adult contemporary" fare. At their country-tinged, whiskey-roughed best--as on their sublime 1988 cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane"--the Junkies sound like a grownup Mazzy Star. As they've aged, though, their languorous, Southern Gothic vibe has given way to a dreadful, Vonda Shepard-style boomer earnestness. Miles From Our Home wavers between the two poles. The title song is melodic and catchy, but the slick overproduction wrings any grit out if it, and "Darkling Days" is as blandly banal as the worst 10,000 Maniacs track. But on the lovely "Someone Out There" and "No Birds Today," the spare arrangements and singer Margo Timmins' rich, searching voice are full of bluesy beauty. (MG)

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The Brian Setzer Orchestra
The Dirty Boogie

Brian Setzer's not one to follow trends, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra was hip to swing years before its '90s resurgence. On this album, the former Stray Cat struts his stuff with his big-band blend of old-fashioned rock & roll, rockabilly and swing. Opening with the jumpy "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," the album delivers an explosive intensity that never lets up. On the swinging title track, Setzer shouts, "You rattle and shake/You moan and groan/A girl like you I could never bring home." In addition to five new Setzer originals, the album features a kicky duet with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani on "You're the Boss" (originally sung by Elvis and Ann-Margret), a twangy version of the sultry instrumental "Sleepwalk," an earnest cover of the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You" and a reworked version of the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town." (SQ)

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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