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POP ALBUM REVIEW

It Takes a Tiny Town to Raise the Roof

*** TINY TOWN "Tiny Town" Pioneer Music Group

October 10, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ladies and gentlemen, the new Rolling Stones album. Well, it ought to be.

Every time I hear some good rock 'n' roll mixed with blues and R&B, I wonder why the Stones don't just admit that being unimaginably rich and jaded leaves them irrevocably divorced from human-scale existence and therefore disqualified from the rock songwriters' work of condensing intense thought or experience into a few hummable, grooving minutes of music.

Tiny Town would be a suitably humble source for the Stones' new chapter as the world's most highly paid cover band. In 1992, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner formed a short-lived group of commercially unvindicated stars called Little Village, prompting roots-rock cognoscenti to get all excited while the greater mass of humanity wondered why it had never heard those names. Tiny Town is stylistically comparable and, as its name suggests, an even humbler version of Little Village, which puts it as close to the Stones' star-tripping flash as Pluto is to the sun.

The members are lead guitarist Tommy Malone and bassist Johnny Ray Allen (both alumni of the Subdudes, an appealing New Orleans band), Iowa-raised rhythm guitarist Pat McLaughlin, who has put out several solo albums, and drummer Kenneth Blevins, another Louisiana native who has played in touring bands for Hiatt, Shawn Colvin and the Waterboys.

With all but Blevins contributing songs, and Malone and McLaughlin alternating on lead vocals, Tiny Town's debut album is really funky, and commendably real.

It's not strikingly original, with its distinct echoes of Hiatt, Little Feat, Los Lobos, the Band circa "Ophelia" and the Southern soul masters who influenced them. But successful roots-rock is built less on originality than on spirited singing and playing, and an interesting point of view in the songwriting.

McLaughlin's point of view wanders toward the fanciful: In the bittersweet "New Day," he imagines that when true love saves him from the fallen, tawdry, greedy world around him, he'll be either dead or living in a cave with bears.

Malone and Allen are also concerned with working through questions of how to get along in a precarious and troublesome world; they do it less obliquely than McLaughlin. Malone is a noteworthy talent, with a voice that brings to mind a less piercing Steve Winwood, and first-rate lead-guitar skills. Tiny Town gets a nice assist on organ from guest player Johnny Neel, a former Allman Brothers Band member who puts a playful spin on most of the songs.

"Straight Up," a hot, churning funky number, gives Malone a platform to burn on guitar; "Follow You Home" alternates between loosely sashaying Little Feat grooves on the verses and barreling, Hiatt-like rock 'n' roll on the chorus. Malone's nervous outlook yields some poignant moments without abandoning the band's wryly humorous slant. "Love, Lead Us Home" is a tense, Robert Cray-like number that looks at youth violence and social decay hitting too close to home, and "Little Child," while echoing one of Free's sunny, good-natured R&B strolls, finds the singer feeling simultaneously drawn to, and unqualified for, the demands of fatherhood.

The concluding song, "Tiny Town," envisions an earthly paradise where honesty and unpretentiousness rule. These veteran players and writers do a better-than-yeomanly job of keeping those ideals afloat.

* Tiny Town opens for Keb' Mo' on Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $26.50-$28.50. (949) 496-8930.

Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.

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