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Short Cuts

Red Hot Chili Peppers
(Warner Bros.)

Apparently, reports of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' creative demise were premature. The band's new album, Californication, is a dark, hypnotic masterwork that reminds us that alternapop needn't be a bad word. Like most good albums, Californication is an ambitious, overreaching mess with good tracks outnumbering the mediocre by a thin margin. Despite its spottiness, the album still beats the cargo pants off the rap-rock competition. This welcome about-face is especially impressive considering the Peppers' disastrous 1995 album, One Hot Minute, which was torpedoed by Dave Navarro's pointless guitar heroics and vapid songwriting. Having jettisoned Navarro in favor of their earlier guitarist John Frusciante, the Peppers return to the forefront of the alt-rock scene they helped create.

Whether it's maturity or experience, the Chili Peppers have outgrown the cartoonish lustiness that distinguished their earlier work. The band that once sang about sexy Mexican maids and stone-cold bush is now nursing a seismic hangover. The Chili Peppers' well-documented drug experiences have been sobering in more ways than one, resulting in an album that is both commending and condemning of their Hollywood home base. Singer Anthony Kiedis used to sing rhapsodically of Los Angeles, but on Californication he joins the legions of jaded Angelenos. On the title track, he rants about the trivializing entertainment industry ("Space may be the final frontier/But it's made in a Hollywood basement"), while on "Around the World," the singer raps about L.A.'s legendarily psychotic women: "I try not to whine/But I must warn ya/'Bout the girls/From California."

Kiedis' venomous observations are offset by the band's virtuosic assaults. Flea and Chad Smith reestablish themselves as rock's most potent rhythm section, while Frusciante's soulful guitar flourishes and exotic melodies are marvels of understatement. Taking up where 1991's BloodSugarSexMagik left off, the band continues to explore beyond its familiar funk-rock environs. "Parallel Universe" sounds like "California Dreamin'" as performed by Rush, while the summery single "Scar Tissue" possesses the toe-tapping bounce of an R&B classic. But hard-core Peppers fans take heart. Despite the adventurous detours, there's still plenty of taffy-textured funk here.

It's doubtful many fans will be turned off by the Chili Peppers' newfound introspection. What Californication lacks in old-fashioned sauciness, it makes up for in sheer chutzpah. At this point, only Rage Against the Machine comes close to rivaling the Chili Peppers' alt-funk onslaught. And with this enticing new CD, the Peppers smash the ball into the challengers' court.

-- Bruce Britt

Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys
Forever Always Ends

As their name implies, Kansas City's Misery Boys, led by ace singer-songwriter Rex Hobart, are a sad bunch -- unlucky in love, loaded with liquor, and lost in the deepest recesses of heartache. Fortunately the losers' laments assembled on Forever Always Ends, the group's debut disc, are set to a swinging kind of redux honky-tonk that's equal parts Bakersfield and Nashville, with piercing harmonica soaring over stinging Telecaster licks and slippery pedal steel, and Hobart serving up his tales of woe and worry with an evocative twang that works on both weepers and wailers.

Mostly weeping, Hobart drowns his sorrows on "I'll Never Sleep It Off" and "Losing Combination," faces the bitter end of another affair in "I Walked in While He Was Changing Your Mind" and "Between a Rock and a Heartache," pleads for understanding in "If You Had Just Believed Me," and owns up to his own romantic mishaps in the unforgiving "Point of No Return." Emotionally bleak, relentless in its exploration of love's darkest corners, Forever Always Ends is the kind of altcountry that deserves an audience far wider than the handful of No Depressioners who will no doubt snap it up.

-- John Floyd

Kendall Payne
Jordan's Sister

Comparisons to Alanis the Whiny and Jewel the Gushy are inevitable, given Payne's confessional material and youth. (She's all of 18.) At its worst ("Fatherless at 14"), this eclectic debut does fall prey to mawkish overproduction. But most of the baker's dozen tracks on Jordan's Sister are made of tougher stuff. Payne fleshes out the somber refrain of "Wonderland" with delicious organ washes, while a gentle chorus of strings preludes the driving chorus of "40 Days in Hollywood." The tasty slink of "Supermodels" and the countrified plink of "Perfect by Thursday" are fitting complements to the weepier ballads ("Honest," "The Second Day").

Payne drew raves for her opening gig at the Lilith Fair, and it's easy to see why. Her voice is thin in spots, but her songwriting is sure and fluid throughout, a pleasing alternative to the self-absorbed excesses of today's chick-rock heroes.

-- Steve Almond