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In love again: Greg Brown's latest touches on affairs of the heart.

Roadhouse Prophet

Greg Brown delivers his most righteous sermon yet

Greg Brown
Red House

AS A FOLK-BLUES SINGER, Greg Brown has earned a well-deserved reputation as "a wickedly sharp observer of the human condition," to borrow a phrase from Rolling Stone. This, his first album in three years and the follow-up to the road-weary Slant 6 Mind, is perhaps his best. Brown--hailed as Iowa's Bruce Springsteen and arguably one of America's best songwriters--just keeps getting better, albeit in a grizzled, life-is-weighing-heavily-on-my-shoulders sort of way.

Indeed, even when Brown is happy and singing about the upside of love, he displays a wry wit and cynical streak. Yet there is a haunting quality to his songs, thanks in no small part to the wistful, bluesy guitar accents of longtime collaborator Bo Ramsey. Whether he's caressing a restless ballad ("Rexroth's Daughter") or spinning a subtle analogy for a well-worn love affair ("Blue Car"), Brown lays bare your soul in a way that only Bob Dylan, Springsteen, and handful of others can.

In the future, this underrated tunesmith should be getting much more attention: word is that Brown will be the subject of an upcoming tribute album, featuring his songs covered by Lucinda Williams, Ani DeFranco, Iris Dement, Stacey Earle, and others.
Greg Cahill

Stuck Mojo
Declaration of a Headhunter
Century Media

Taproot Gift

THE BACKBONE of "nu-metal" still owes a heavy debt to hip-hop, as bands like Papa Roach and P.O.D. find identity and success riding a post&-Rage/Bizkit wave. But an evolving edge has heavy bands echoing alt-rock's "emo-core" in a quest for expansive melodic expression. Acts like Stuck Mojo and Taproot can't help but employ rap-metal's staccato vocal attack and punk-funk base, but they infuse the aggro-groove with reflective change-ups, harmonic bursts, and tuneful choruses.

Stuck Mojo find melody in a classic chunky thrash snarl. Their latest fits neatly with Anthrax's many catchy, driving works, and the band's prominent hook-laden, bright, doubled guitar leads recall Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy. Their insurgent, survivalist lyrical stance aims for Rage Against the Wannabes, but is grounded by self-searching challenges. Taproot are emo-core/alt-rock in the way melodic twists help singer Stephen Richards highlight his pain. They're nu-metal in the way their clichéd riffs surround those songwriting shifts. And they're weird like early alt-metal pioneers Faith No More, with a strummed consistency similar to that of recent Filter.

While these current headbangers don't seek the full structural or emotional freedom that marks pure emo-core, their tweaking of the groove formula helps keep nu-metal new.
Karl Byrn

Neko Case & Her Boyfriends
Furnace Room Lullaby

Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
Beneath the Country Underdog

SOMETIMES alt-country acts don't mimic or twist classic country styles; they just favor those styles in a blend of rootsy retro-pop. That's true of two recent efforts by indie gals Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, both from Chicago's Bloodshot Records, which rightfully calls itself the home of "insurgent country." Case and Hogan are both spunky singer/stylists who rely on the country-rock chops of their bands, and despite Bloodshot's claims, they're more accessible than rebellious. Case is the more involved songwriter and hits a somewhat purer rockabilly-meets-countrypolitan sound, working with indie-rock guys like Evan Johns and Ron Sexsmith. On the waltz-time cut "Thrice All American," she gracefully describes her hometown of Tacoma as "a dusty old jewel in the south Puget Sound/ where the factories churn/ and the timber's all cut down." But she still notices gangs and Wal-Mart. Hogan's band includes Jon Langford and Steve Goulding of the Mekons, and her interesting choice of covers (Johnny Paycheck, Stephin Merritt, the Band) adds to a disc of colorful folk-pop that echoes '60s and '70s hits.

Both Case and Hogan often hit their mark, making alt-country that's not too daring or derivative but sure is sweet, sad, and sassy.

James Armstrong
Got It Goin' On

A KNIFE ATTACK three years ago cut into blues guitarist and singer James Armstrong's momentum right in the midst of his touring for 1995's acclaimed HighTone debut, Sleeping with a Stranger. That led Armstrong to record a more vocal-oriented soul album as a follow-up. This time out, the blues is in the house, and Armstrong shows that you can't keep a good guitar slinger down. While he hasn't fully regained the use of his left hand, Armstrong sounds strong--just check out his wrenching solo on the ballad "Another Dream"--and has added a stinging slide guitar to his arsenal. Joe Louis Walker's rhythm section provides the backup, and Robert Cray keyboardist Jimmy Pugh appears on two tracks. But Armstrong sounds confident, and, while he's not as fast as he used to be, this is one cat who can serve up plenty of soul.

Spin du Jour

Mike Audridge, Bob Brozman, and David Grisman
Tone Poems III: The Sounds of Great Slide & Resophonic Instruments
Acoustic Disc

MONDO-MANDOLINIST David Grisman returns with another dazzling display of bluegrass wizardry and a pair of fast-picking friends, master dobro player Mike Auldridge and slide guitarist extraordinaire Bob Brozman. As with past volumes, this recording employs vintage instruments (and stunning photos of the artsy detail that graces these gorgeous guitars, mandolins, ukes, tenortropes, and other stringed wonders). The tunes, mostly classic jazz, get an old-timey treatment as well: "Stomping at the Savoy," "Limehouse Blues," "Crazy Rhythm." Smooth as silk.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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