Short Cuts

Jono Manson
Little Big Man
(Paradigm Records)

If you've never heard of Jono Manson before, it's understandable. Though he's been playing the club circuit for two decades, Little Big Man is only his second album on a major label (following 1995's soulful Almost Home). Manson, who's collaborated with Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, and Joan Osborne, is a musician's musician -- and the raspy-voiced, honky-tonk songs on Little Big Man show why.

You've heard this groove before: cliched Southern rock combined with resolute, country-tinged vocals. But it's still contagious stuff. All fourteen songs on Little Big Man are short, simple, and upbeat. Even the stomping blues number "Little Baby" is sung at a rapid C&W pace reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Manson's lyrics are more political than autobiographical: "Mama's shooting cocaine/ She's about to bust a membrane/And baby needs a new pair of shoes/Daddy's in a slump, he been/Arrested by the government/Little baby sure got the blues." Here, as on the rest of the album, Manson is obviously having fun, showing off his bluesy guitar strumming and delivering shrieks of "Wha!" and "Hey!" and "Aaaaaaha!"

Yet ballads are Manson's specialty. "Finest Hour" and "No Strings" are lightly painted with pedal-steel guitar and darkened by Manson's deep, gravelly voice. Another standout track is "You're Making Me Try Too Hard," a '60s-style soul song complete with backup singers, a plucky mandolin, and an electric piano solo. But the best song on the album is "Madman's Sky," which starts off with a ringing acoustic guitar a la Neil Young and slowly builds to a screeching peak of intertwining electric guitars.

Yes, Little Big Man is a collection of country/blues/soul formulas. And no, it's not breaking any musical ground. But this is as good as the formula gets, and in today's anything-goes musical climate, it's actually refreshing.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Various Artists
Great Expectations: The Album
(Atlantic)

Like most Hollywood soundtracks, this one dutifully packages every smash single and hopeful hit onto one CD. A shotgun approach to the market, it tries to hit various targets: the grungers, the ska kids, the ravers, the rockers, et cetera. Funnily enough, the Titanic soundtrack -- essentially an old-fashioned symphonic film score -- is now the best-selling album in the country. Perhaps its success will lead to fewer jumbled messes such as the Great Expectations CD.

The soundtrack does sample a range of distinctive artists. Starting off with Tori Amos' hypnotic "Siren," it moves on to the lo-fi ambiance of Mono (the band's "Life in Mono" was featured in most of the movie's trailers). Yet it also has more than a few predictable moments. Lauren Christy's "Walk This Earth Alone" sounds like one of Roxette's cheap dance-tracks, albeit slightly edgier, while Duncan Sheik tries to rock out but ends up just whining on "Wishful Thinking." The Verve Pipe, which usually delivers dependable post-grunge material, here offers watered-down electronica suitable for VH1.

The best tracks actually come from two metalheads gone solo. Chris Cornell, of Soundgarden, successfully mixes glam-rock and folk into "Sunshower"; Scott Weiland, of Stone Temple Pilots, comes close to genius with "Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down." That song's tinny, dissonant piano blends with Sheryl Crow's accordion to make a haunting, vaudevillian waltz.

Yet the last word belongs to Pulp's ever-witty frontman, Jarvis Cocker. On "Like a Friend," he seems to sum up the soundtrack with the line, "You take up my time like a cheap magazine."

-- Liesa Goins

Various Artists
The Singles (19951996)
(Loverly Music)

Memphis certainly has more than its share of musical tradition. Besides helping to give birth to the blues and Elvis Presley, the city also spawned seminal record labels such as Sun, Stax, and Hi. But not many folks know about the contemporary Memphis scene, especially the funkier, more obscure bands that can't be pigeonholed as straight blues, rock, or soul. In an attempt to set things straight, the Memphis-based indie label Loverly Music has assembled a batch of tracks that shines some light on the city's current crop of musical weirdos and wannabes.

The Singles (19951996) rocks, twangs, buzzes, and bangs with unvarnished spontaneity and gutbucket gusto. Its 30 songs were recorded on the fly, sans samplers and other high-tech gadgets, and first released as vinyl singles, a fact that says a great deal about the commercial expectations of both the label and the artists.

Though spread over two compact discs, the songs have lost none of their primitive charm. The Young Seniors' "Senior Stroll" affectionately tweaks the rock genre, while James Eddie Campbell's "Crack in the World" crushes it in a bear hug. Professor Elixir's Southern Troubadours offer a slanted take on country music ("Southern Train," all rusty hinges and creaky voices), and Alex Greene wrinkles his nose at cocktail nation exotica with "Road Kill Samba."

Overall, this material swerves past genres and veers towards anarchy. Trey Harrison duets with a rooster on "Working Can Wait," Kid Blue lisps through a Morrissey/ Monkees hybrid called "Come In, Miss Sarajevo," and the Satyrs let loose with an industrial garage stomp that sounds like Tom Waits trapped inside a transistor radio ("Johnny Rebel").

Not all of Singles catches fire, but most of it sparks. With such intriguing recordings, Loverly may help establish Memphis as an indie-rock mecca. Stranger things have happened. In fact they seem to happen in Memphis all the time.

-- John Lewis

Chichi Peralta y Son Familia
Pa' Otro La'o
(Caiman Records)

Just when you thought there were no more interesting ways to write a Latin love song, along come Chichi Peralta y Son Familia, who demonstrate that doing things the old-fashioned way -- harnessing well-wrought lyrics to traditional rhythms -- is the best way. Peralta developed his Latin pop chops during an eight-year stint as the percussionist for Juan Luis Guerra y 4:40, one of the world's most commercially successful merengue bands, and has now rallied his own formidable group of musicians and songwriters in Son Familia.

On Pa' Otro La'o (To the Other Side), his debut album for Caiman Records, Peralta assumes the arrangement and production duties. The result is a disc that taps the rhythmic mines of the Caribbean to find the mythic depths of the love song. At the same time, this music swings with such seductive force that it could easily find a home in any nightclub or cruisemobile's stereo system.

Pa' Otro La'o ranges from world beat to disco beat. "Amor Narcotico" is like a cannonball of love shot out of a tropical fortress of rhythm. Though the track begins with a delicately fingered acoustic guitar, the naive timbre of Jandy Feliz's alto pipes, and the wispy adornment of the London Symphony Orchestra, it quickly explodes into a pop merengue. That's just one of the album's many surprises. Others include an African-tinged call-and-response on "Un Dia Mas," a nod to dance-club nightlife on "Techno Son," and a reggae rhythm on "La Ciguapa" (which pays homage to a woman who is as tasty as a cigua fruit). The happy-go-lucky title track finds its counterpoint in brokenhearted lyrics, while "Un Dia Mas" is a song of unrequited love brought to sorrowful depths by Chichi's deft blending of African and Pakistani rhythms.

These Latin love songs are feel-good music at its best. Peralta knows how to light up the bulbs of the highbrows with his savvy production skills -- and still stir things up from the waist down.

-- Victor Cruz

Lotion
(SpinArt)

Dwelling in a sub-counter-pop culture in which Pavement is passe and trashy TV shows are tres hip, the band Lotion is practically soaking in its own coolness. Lotion got the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon to write the liner notes for its second album, Nobody's Cool. In 1996 the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan included the band's stickers and posters in an exhibit. This past January, Lotion made a cameo appearance in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Such hijinks have made Lotion the darling of the college-educated, indie-rock crowd. But all gimmickry aside, these four sly New Yorkers -- Tony Zajkowski on vocals, Jim Ferguson on guitar, Rob Youngberg on drums, and Bill Ferguson on bass -- create some of the snappiest, freshest, most appealing pop songs around.

In fact there's no reason Lotion couldn't fit into a radio playlist along with the Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, or even Third Eye Blind. "Mr. President" is a harmony-driven, grunge-rock number with a chugging guitar riff, "Feedback Queen" rides along on a sunny chorus, and "Drop Dead" boasts one of those great stuttering refrains ("C-C-Californ-i-ay"). For the most part, these twelve songs are the kind that jump right into the unconscious and cause involuntary head-nodding and perhaps even air-guitar-playing. Even the brief excursions into indie-rock experimentation are built around good hooks. "My Name Is Prince" -- perhaps a nod to The Artist who inspired the glyphlike title of this CD -- is edgy and rhythmic, but the backing vocals and ringing guitar still make for a hummable tune. With Zajkowski's earnest, gutsy voice leading the band, Lotion might be mistaken for any number of commercial rock outfits like Everclear or Creed.

But Lotion likes to play with convention ever so slightly. In the middle of the melodic "Rich Cop, Poor Cop," Lotion briefly turns itself into an '80s metal band accompanied by the sound of screaming concertgoers. "I Love Me (Vol. 1)" incorporates an alarm clock, disembodied laughter, and a bullwhip and ends with a distinctly Beatlesque chorus. The band's lyrics are sometimes archly postmodern (alluding to everything from Steve McQueen to the musical Chess), but they can also be emotionally powerful. "No. 99" is a particularly affecting song, hinting at an illicit love affair. "Be careful what you say/She reads your writing," Zajkowski warns. "You play astronaut/And I'm a pirate/She's already heard/Though we keep quiet."

Lotion is probably a little too clever for mainstream FM radio, so don't expect to hear "5th Fret - Distant Cousin" on anyone's playlist soon. Still, the band has achieved an appropriately underground sort of fame: The idiot savant singer Wesley Willis recently recorded an homage to the band, titled "Lotion Are Assholes."

-- Rafer Guzman

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