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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

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."

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Victor Cruz
Liesa Goins
Rafer Guzman
Jonathan Lesser
John Lewis

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