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Kacy Crowley

This talented singer-songwriter was born in Connecticut and grew up listening to the heartland rock and roll of John Cougar Mellencamp. She did a brief stint as a Grateful Dead groupie then devoted herself to playing music in the coffeehouses of Los Angeles. She played with various bands in New York City then relocated to Austin. An indie record deal led to a gig at the South by Southwest music festival, which in turn landed her a contract with Atlantic Records. The result is this twelve-song debut, on which Crowley sounds totally and utterly identical to Sheryl Crow.

Crowley has Crow down pat, from her overly emotional delivery to her contrived Middle American accent to her hick-chick-in-a-hip-city lyrics. The most obvious example is the song "Nickel to the Stone," in which Crowley speak-sings over an urban-sounding guitar riff: "There's these little side-alleys leading nowhere/A garbage truck just drove on by/The guy on back gave us the eye." All Crowley wants to do is have some fun, but somebody used that line already. Almost every track on this debut -- the rootsy "Hand to Mouthville," the radio-friendly ballad "Love Is Close," the coming-of-age story "Rebellious" -- mimics Crow with the accuracy of a good impressionist. Crowley, who plays acoustic guitar, even has her own Tuesday Night Music Club, a group of session musicians who specialize in bland rock with a latent country strain.

The world is full of weak and desperate rip-off artists, but is Crowley really one of them? Or has she fallen victim to the bandwagon mentality of the bigtime music business? She certainly has poetry in her soul, and some of her lyrics have an eloquent simplicity: "I called my mother, but we don't get along/Because when I was there, she was gone/And there is one last thing I need to get a handle on/People can love you and still do you wrong." She also ventures into territory where Crow would never go. "Scars" is a dark and possibly metaphorical song in which Crowley relates, "I got chills down my spine/When they told me what they were gonna do/They said you'll have scars/You'll have scars."

Crowley hits upon something solid and true in that tune, but the rest of the time she's trying to sing someone else's song. Perhaps if she does a second album, she'll let us hear what she actually sounds like.

-- Rafer Guzman

Various Artists
Bridge School Concerts Volume 1

Leave it to Neil Young to put together a various-artists collection that includes back-to-back performances by Beck and Bonnie Raitt, Ministry and Simon and Garfunkel. As one of the most iconoclastic and adventurous artists in rock and roll, Young has friends of all ages and musical sensibilities. For the past ten years, many of them have jumped at the chance to help out at the annual Bridge School Concerts, a Northern California event hosted by Young himself. It's always one of the most intriguing live gigs of any calendar year, and it's also for a good cause: Proceeds benefit a school for children with severe speech and physical disabilities, including Young's own.

Bridge shows are mostly acoustic affairs, which means that this CD -- culled from various performances over the years -- is relatively cohesive, regardless of its hodgepodge of altrockers, old punkers, and boomer staples. From the Pretenders with the Duke String Quartet ("Real Sense of Purpose") to Beck at his most Dylan-like ("It's All in Your Mind") to the bluesy Raitt ("The Road's My Middle Name"), there's a shared sense of intimacy that just might keep you from lunging for the fast-forward button, whether you're a fortysomething or a Gen X-er. In fact only one track really begs for the eject button: "Battle of Evermore," by the Lovemongers, who are actually the Wilson sisters (of Heart) taking their career-long Zeppelin envy to bombastic extremes. Spinal Tap lives.

But this is one painful moment among many passionate ones that can be found in performances by Tracy Chapman ("All That You Have Is Your Soul"), Patti Smith ("People Have the Power"), Pearl Jam ("Nothingman"), and Simon and Garfunkel ("America"), the latter duo still harmonizing gorgeously after all these years. Stripped of his usual high drama, David Bowie delivers a powerful "Heroes," but the CD's biggest surprise comes from Ministry, which eschews its ear-bleeding industrialisms for a spirited acoustic-country reading of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil." Elvis Costello weighs in with that old chestnut "Alison," and even Young's jarring backup vocals can't dull the song's bittersweet shine. Besides, it's Young's party, he can do whatever he wants.

-- Neal Weiss

The Orange Peels
(Minty Fresh)

Allen Clapp is a seething pit of rage, lust, and other less cardinal but more unseemly sins. Only an assiduously practiced Christian faith helps control the monster he is. That, and the fact that he writes real purdy songs. As the lead singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter for the Orange Peels, Clapp leads his cohorts -- Jill "Judas" Pries (his wife) on bass, Larry "Geetar" Winther on guitar, and Bob Vickers on drums -- into a realm of pure pop evil with Square.

Prior to signing with Chicago's pop-oriented label Minty Fresh (home to the sticky-sweet Cardigans and Veruca Salt), Clapp released a handful of singles, EPs, and albums on various indie labels. Minty Fresh expressed interest in Clapp quite a while ago, but it was a year before he got around to calling them back. A shifty careerist he is definitely not. He's a graphic designer by day and also helps his wife, a daycare manager, teach Sunday school for a Lutheran church near their home in Redwood City, California.

These days the Clapp family is spending less time spreading the Good Word and more on the road pimping their record, which is unabashed, unapologetic pop. If you loathe pop in all its manifestations, you will certainly dislike Square. Most of the album has a frantically jangling prehippie Sixties sound, relentlessly head-bobbing and streaked with ascending harmonic choruses. It's just varied enough in tempo and treatment to obviate the tedium that threatens.

"Get It Right" sounds like a Gene Vincent-penned soundtrack for a James Bond movie. "Slow Train," with its manic drumming, sounds like Bob Mould's short-lived band Sugar. Two instrumentals written by Winther, "Spaghetti-O Western" and "Tex," recall the kind of overorchestrated country songs that proliferated during the late Fifties.

Lyrically, Clapp's sweet side (yes, he has one) occasionally borders on the insipid. He's at his best when he's riled up and taking chances, compressing and distorting his words. From "She Is Like a Rose": "Nine days wonder/Love's the sky she's under/ Gardeners ponder/Cannot see the author/ Everybody knows/She is like a rose."

The best song on the record, "Love Coming Down," is a pop hymn that doesn't stand a chance in hell of being played on the radio. Its lyrical evocation of God's light and love is too religious for secular listeners, but its hip-swiveling chorus is too sexy for the Christians. Let's just you and me listen to it, then. It can be our dirty little secret. God knows Clapp and his Orange Peels have plenty of their own.

-- Curt Hopkins

Letters to Cleo

The picture on the back of Letters to Cleo's third CD shows in the foreground vocalist Kay Hanley, all pouting lips and upraised eyes, like a precocious child whose hand is caught in a cookie jar. The picture is wonderfully appropriate: Hanley's breathy vocals convey youthful exuberance at every turn, coating the band's punchy pop tunes with silky sweetness.

The eleven songs on GO! are simply constructed: The guitars of Michael Eisenstein (who also plays keyboards) and Greg McKenna, backed by the rhythm section of Scott Riebling on bass and Tom Polce on drums, create driving, kinetic, three- or four-chord foundations from which Hanley's vocals take flight. "I Got Time" kicks things off with bouncy insistence, surging toward a tasty drum roll in the bridge. The cheery energy of "Veda Very Shining" conjures up the spirit of the Go-Go's, while the swaying "Co-Pilot" recalls the best efforts of the Turtles or the Hollies. Hanley's crystalline delivery and pert enunciation accentuate the latter song's upbeat, joyous chorus. When she implores, "Be my co-pilot/Come be in my dream/You look so beautiful," she becomes every teenage girl who ever gazed longingly at a picture of her first love.

The CD's best song is its quietest and saddest. "Alouette & Me," centered on an acoustic guitar and lounge-style keyboards, finds Hanley rationalizing and reconciling a broken heart, proclaiming resilience but betraying a palpable sense of anger and loss.

Hanley drives GO!'s surging, relentless pop with a power derived not from fury or angst but from tenderness. Though she may sing with the defiance and vengefulness of a jilted lover, what comes through in her voice is a deep and lasting vulnerability.

-- Larry Getlen

Beat Angels
Red Badge of Discourage

Approximately fifteen years ago -- who can recall the exact moment and what dif does it make anyway? -- there occurred a remarkable little blip in time when New Wave and punk segued into hair-band heaven, a transformation captured most distinctively on Hanoi Rocks' whirligigging 1984 record Back to Mystery City: all hepped-up melodies, buzzing guitar hooks, punchy beats, bratty-boy vocals, and unregenerate lyrics that celebrated trashy chicks and the rockingness of the music itself while dishing those dweebs who just didn't get it.

Beat Angels' singer-songwriter Brian Smith and his bandmates -- guitarists Michael Brooks and Keith Jackson, bassist Tommy CaraDonna, and drummer Frankie Hanyak -- gleefully wallow in that mid-Eighties glam-metal sound on their second album, Red Badge of Discourage. With Smith behind the wheel, this Tempe, Arizona-based band careens from one splayed sing-along to the next: "My Glum Sugar-Plum," "Saturday Punks," "Go Your Way," "Cinnamon Says." The tracks are fairly interchangeable with the exception of the Gary Glitter-esque stomp "Keep It Up." But despite the songs' similarity, at a mere 34 minutes the album doesn't overstay its welcome. Throughout, producer Gilby Clarke applies just the right amount of compressed studio sheen to the proceedings -- no real surprise given his band Guns n' Roses' innate understanding of -- if not complete adherence to -- the glam-rock unities. Smith refers to the appropriate cultural touchstones (Marianne Faithfull, the Clash's Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, even Bebe Buell!) while thumbing his nose at anything that remotely gets in his way. Unbridled fun. (Epiphany Records, 1303 W. 21st St., Tempe, AZ 85285)

-- Michael Yockel

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Larry Getlen
Rafer Guzman
Curt Hopkins
Neal Weiss
Michael Yockel

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