Short Cuts

Jim Lauderdale
Whisper
(BNA/BMG)

After bouncing from Reprise to Atlantic to the Nashville indie Upstart, neocountry master Jim Lauderdale is back on a major label with an album that neatly summarizes the singer-songwriter's brilliant, if commercially underwhelming, career. Whisper strikes a balance between the vibrant honky-tonk of his 1991 debut, Planet of Love, and 1996's Persimmons and his two country-rock efforts for Atlantic, Pretty Close to the Truth (1994) and Every Second Counts (1995), representing the absolute quintessence of radio-ready country-and-western.

Of course radio will probably pass on Whisper, just as it has Lauderdale's other sterling efforts. It's radio's loss, though, because the guy is making some of the best country records since Gary Stewart stormed through Nashville in the mid-'70s with purist stompers such as "Single Again" and "Drinkin' Thing."

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Like Stewart, Lauderdale is loyal to the traditions established by the honky-tonk heroes of the past but clever enough to bend those traditions to fit his own vision. And the scope of that vision, as proven throughout Whisper, is both musically and lyrically staggering, encompassing the throbbing pulse of vintage Waylon Jennings ("Without You Here It's Not the Same"), the pleading vulnerability of George Jones ("It's Hard to Keep a Secret Anymore"), and the agile wordplay of Roger Miller ("Hole in My Head," which is hilarious despite the dark undercurrent of the lyrics).

Lauderdale's piercing tenor recalls '60s-era Buck Owens, but you also hear a touch of blues in his phrasing (e.g., "Sometimes" and the scatting climax on "Take Me Down a Path"). He can also hold his own with the big boys: On Whisper he collaborates with songwriting legends Harlan Howard and Melba Montgomery and shares the gorgeous and galloping "I'll Lead You Home" with bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys -- company that no doubt better suits Lauderdale's genius than anyone you'll hear on country radio these days.

-- John Floyd

Hanson
3 Car Garage: The Indie Recordings '95'96
(Mercury)

To issue a recording from the early years of Hanson, a group whose oldest member is still four years shy of drinking age, is like honoring Leonardo DiCaprio with a lifetime-achievement award. Yet this recording, from the band's "indie days" (a mere two years ago), shows that the much-loved and much-maligned boys have a gift for writing catchy songs and may well develop into tremendous vocal stylists.

It's pretty easy to criticize the three blond brothers, and 3 Car Garage offers more reasons to do so. The songwriting is primordially basic, and many of the tracks sound interchangeable. The lyrics, most of them ruminations on love and relationships, are about as trite as you'd expect from a band whose experience in such matters must certainly be limited.

Yet there's more talent here than initially meets the ear. Though the songs are pedestrian, the brothers' knack for snappy hooks and boppin' rhythms is undeniable. And despite the sometimes ludicrous lyrics (just try not to laugh when they sing, "'Cause I'm only a man flawed in so many ways" in "Surely as the Sun"), they're no worse than the stuff a lot of adults are putting out these days.

Most impressive, however, is the bottom-line musical ability the moppets show. They're solid players, and they can truly sing. Isaac, the 17-year-old guitarist, has a bluesy croon that's developing a syrupy richness, and Taylor, the 14-year-old keyboardist and singer, shifts between a powerful falsetto and a soul man's growl with ease -- not unlike a young Michael Jackson. Together with Zac, the 12-year-old drummer, their vocal harmonies are supple and tuneful.

Although 3 Car Garage demonstrates that the Hanson brothers have raw talent, how that talent evolves will be interesting to watch. Who knows what could happen if someone exposed these youngsters to richer, deeper influences than AM-radio pop. Quick, get these boys a Coltrane CD!

-- Larry Getlen

Girls Against Boys
FREAK*ON*ICA
(Geffen)

Since 1992, Girls Against Boys (a.k.a. "GVSB" to its fans) has been releasing records that come across as noir soundtracks, which openly embrace and explore the lusty, dirty, usually hidden side everyone has. With FREAK*ON*ICA, the group's sixth record and major-label debut, it keeps the bottom end heavy, the grooves solid, and the guitars set on "stun" while vocalist Scott McCloud's smooth-talking, hustler rasp guides listeners through the back alleys.

The members of GVSB are cover-model hunky, but you get the feeling that McCloud could talk girls and boys out of their pants even in a dark room. Producer Nick Launay, who has done similar work for Public Image Ltd. and Killing Joke, was given the challenge of keeping the two bass guitars, multiple keyboards, drums, and drum machines from sonically canceling each other out. He keeps the album from getting claustrophobic by giving the hard-rock guitars a notable presence in the mix as the band experiments with hip-hop beats, record-scratching, and distorted keyboards. Make no mistake about it, though: FREAK*ON*ICA (a play on "electronica") is like a postpunk Funkadelic party record, even if it seems to be celebrating the end of the world.

A band with great chops and a postmodern attitude, GVSB keep things interesting by thwarting expectations and subverting the genres it throws together. The stop-start careening guitars of "Cowboy's Orbit" ring with metallic urgency, but the disco drums, space-noise synthesizers, and rumbling bass add a sultriness to the proceedings. As GVSB shows on "Exorcisto," another song with muscular guitars, the band likes to rock out, but it tempers the heaviness with grooves. With bent bass notes, keyboards, and the crackling drums of Alexis Fleisig, the song is turned into a loping, funky, rhythm-section workout.

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