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JULY 5, 1999: 

*** The Backsliders SOUTHERN LINES (Mammoth)

It's hard to capture a guy like Backsliders frontman Chip Robinson on record. Unselfconsciously flailing in cowboy boots and long, stringy hair, he's as likely to dance on the tops of tables as he is to pass out drunk underneath them. But a performer who goes through that many ups and downs in a night is also capable of conveying a broad range of emotion, which Robinson does in a voice that echoes a slightly-closer-to-the-Mason-Dixon-line Levon Helm. Whether upright or horizontal, Robinson has led this Chapel Hill roots-rock contingent through various incarnations since 1991. Under the guidance of former Del Lords guitarist and ubiquitous roots-rock producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, the Backsliders' second full-length dispenses with the band's "hardcore honky-tonk" in favor of the more jangly sound that grew out of the South in the '80s. Not that Southern Lines doesn't rock and twang; "Never Be Your Darling" chugs like an Exile on Main Street outtake, and pedal steel whines gently in the background of "Cross Your Heart" and "The Lonely One." But Ambel also turns Robinson loose on quiet, ghostly ballads, revealing that the singer's roots indeed run in many different directions.

-- Meredith Ochs

*** Pennywise STRAIGHT AHEAD (Epitaph)

Ten years ago Pennywise had two things going for them: they brought heavy-metal gallop into their punk rock, and they sounded a lot like fellow SoCal punks Bad Religion. Today, in the world of platinum punkers, where bigger bands produce better songs by applying modern recording techniques to vintage sounds, Pennywise are in danger of being forgotten, or else remembered as Worse Religion.

Either fate would be a shame, since Straight Ahead does more than just apply Metallica precision to Bad Religion chord progressions. Pennywise break up the monotony of punk metal by employing mid-tempos on "My Own Country" and "Alien" and by shading their tried-and-true thrashers with convincing vocal harmonies and loud-soft dynamics ("Straight Ahead" and "Greed"). The songs underneath the fixings and new tempos -- most of which have a bittersweet hardcore feel characterized by flowing melancholy melodies offset by jerky, staccato riffs -- show that finally Pennywise aren't following any religion but their own.

-- Lorne Behrman

**1/2 The London Suede HEAD MUSIC (Nude/Columbia)

The London Suede never made it to Oasis levels in the US. Both bands peddle the same sort of old-fashioned Brit-rock, but compared to the Gallagher brothers, singer Brett Anderson is just too fey for stateside tastes -- and Americans haven't been too keen on embracing, other than Hanson, anything sexually ambiguous lately.

Suede remain popular in the UK, however, despite the 1994 departure of guitarist Bernard Butler, who many assumed was the principal architect of Suede's chunky glam sound. On his second effort with the band, new guitarist Richard Oakes shows all of Butler's swagger without any of Butler's grandeur -- he's got the balls but not the heart. It adds up to an album with several terrific rockers -- especially the opener, "Electricity," and "Elephant Man" -- and a few uninspired ballads. Spicing their instrumentation with the odd electronic embellishment does little to tarnish Suede's muscular sound, and the deviations from their usual formula, like the "Young Americans"-esque "She's in Fashion" and the Princy "Savoir Faire," are fun, frothy, and lightweight. In the end, though, Head Music isn't much more than an attention-grabbing, entertaining tease.

-- Ben Auburn

*** John Dee Graham SUMMERLAND (New West)

"I'm not in charge, and that's okay/And I'm not at large, at least not today." That phrase from "God's Perfect Love" is nearly as upbeat as it gets for John Dee Graham, a former member of legendary Austin punk band the Skunks and later the country-punk True Believers (with Alejandro Escovedo). On Summerland, his second solo outing, his unadorned garage-band sound shifts from high-voltage grinds to soft songs characterized by a melancholy acoustic guitar spiked with a mewing slide guitar. Graham's yearning, pack-a-day vocals heave out stark images of the plains heat, a plane crash, or a gal on a dance floor, evocative details punctuating stories that have hazy, ambivalent higher meanings. Past Graham tunes have been recorded by Patty Smyth and others, and he worked with X's John Doe for a couple of years before Texas called him home. Like Doe's music, Graham's is a little dark, or at least it comes off that way because of his raspy voice and the spare approach of his line-up, which includes musicians associated with Joe Ely and John Mellencamp.

-- Bill Kisliuk

*** Gov't Mule LIVE . . . WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS (Capricorn)

Guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody cut their teeth jamming in the Allman Brothers Band. With Gov't Mule they still know how to stretch a tune out live, but they place a higher premium on heavy volume and metallic thunder. Recorded in Atlanta last New Year's Eve, Live . . . with a Little Help from Our Friends finds Haynes, Woody, and drummer Matt Abts jamming with seasoned keyboardists Chuck Leavell and Bernie Worrell, Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford (who sings on a 14-minute version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer"), and former Traffic sideman Randall Bramblett, and tackling material that ranges from the wistful ("Soulshine") to the gritty ("Mule") to the familiar (Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and the Elmore James blues "Look on Yonder Wall"). As you might expect from a pair of Allman alums, there are some excessive song lengths -- "Afro Blue," the two-CD set's closer, lasts almost a half-hour. But Gov't Mule have the improvisational chops to keep things interesting for 29 minutes, and the talent to keep classic jazz fusion, psychedelia, Delta voodoo, and even a little folksy balladry all sounding fresh -- and loud.

-- Kandia Crazy Horse

**** Gary Lucas @ PARADISO (Oxygen Music Works)

Sure, Gary Lucas has a great résumé: Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, his own inventive rock outfit Gods & Monsters, songwriting collaborations with Jeff Buckley and others, soundtracks, and a rapidly expanding universe of solo albums and concerts. But in the land of guitarslingers, you're only as good as your last work. So here's a great live recording that stakes out his turf as a parcel extending from the Mississippi Delta to the textural/ambient domain and way out into space. It's hard to believe that one guitarist has such absolute command of mud-deep blues fingerpicking and colorful sonic improvisation. Nonetheless, Lucas blends roots, jazz, rock, and free improv without sacrificing a scrap of melody or soul. As you listen to Lucas's emotional tear through "Rise Up To Be" (the music Buckley used for "Grace") and his masterful step-by-step construction of spontaneous loops, rhythms, and searing melodies in his own spin down Kraftwerk's "Autobahn," the sheer creative beauty of his playing becomes undeniable. (Order from 208 West 30th Street, #1025, New York, New York 10001.)

-- Ted Drozdowski

**1/2 Eightball & M.J.G. IN OUR LIFETIME (Suave House/Universal)

Now that Southern hip-hop is taking over the world, maybe Eightball & M.J.G. (representing Tennessee by way of Houston) can finally get their props. That's the kind of sentence that usually introduces a veteran group destined to wallow in obscurity, but these two already have platinum records and a decade's worth of loyal fans -- their success has been huge, if regionally uneven.

The best track on In Our Lifetime is "Throw Your Hands Up," a dense, furious, weird number that borrows rappers (OutKast) and a producer (Mr. DJ) from Atlanta's Organized Noise crew. Most of the album's varied and futuristic beats are ably supplied by Suave House resident T-Mix, but the real focus is the rhyming: in a seductive Southern drawl, the fat-and-skinny duo (guess which one's named "Eightball") tell intricate stories of pimping and fighting and rap supremacy. Beats and lyrics aside, however, hip-hop heads have come to expect one thing from Southern rappers: flamboyantly ugly album art. Eightball & M.J.G.'s past achievements in this field will not soon be forgotten, but the cover of their new disc is surprisingly sparse -- perhaps a computer swallowed the real cover art (a digital collage, no doubt) at the last possible minute?

-- Kelefa Sanneh

*** The Bevis Frond VAVONA BURR (Flydaddy)

At the Middle East a year or so ago, the Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman prefaced a viciously sad song, "Stars Burn Out," by imploring Pete Townshend to get back on the brandy and to the business of making great rock and roll. The broadside was, I thought, very Pete Townshend of him -- right down to the brutally unforgiving, wounded sentiment of the tune itself.

Those are the kind of perfect moments you live for when you listen to a Bevis Frond album. The material's almost always worthwhile -- even on the tracks where you begin to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, those four extra minutes of "Maggot Brain" jamming aren't entirely necessary. But then there are those flashes of perfection -- songs so eloquent, raw, and unerring that they make everything else feel like filler. Here, we're treated to a trio of moving wounded tracks: "You Just Don't Feel That Way About Me," "Leave a Light On," and "In Her Eyes." And Vavona Burr echoes the dozen-plus Bevis Frond discs that have come before it in at least three other ways: the production's a little flat; the vocal melodies sound so familiar; and it eclipses anything Townshend's done since White City.

-- Jonathan Perry

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