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Beyond emo to emotional

October 19, 2003|Dean Kuipers; Soren Baker; Robert Hilburn; Natalie Nichols

Paul Westerberg

"Come Feel Me Tremble" (Vagrant)



"Dead Man Shake" (Fat Possum)


Vagrant Records head Rich Egan once said he signed a great many of the bands that are now standard-bearers of the emo punk movement (Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, etc.) because he felt they sounded like his favorite band, the Replacements. This new release by Replacements auteur Westerberg, a work that finds the veteran rocker in mostly singer-songwriter mode, shows that Westerberg's simple barroom-and-back-alley tunes carry crushing emotional impact that most emo stars have yet to attain.

The album has a live feel, and Westerberg loves to let the guitar speak for itself in hard-charging waves of loud distortion ("Dirty Diesel," "Pine Box"), but it's hard not to prefer his quieter, acoustic offerings when his quavering, raspy voice and devastating lyrics are out front. In the "original take" of "Crackle & Drag," for instance, his voice is buried in a ragged electric mix and it's hard to know what the song is about; in the "alternate version," his lyrics boom out over a quiet guitar, revealing a dark, disturbing song about a mother committing suicide with the baby sleeping in the other room.

The similarly forlorn, acoustic "Meet Me Down the Alley" is the perfect Westerberg song: an almost-Springsteen-ish paean to youthful belief in love and trust. Westerberg has always dealt squarely with tragedy and life drained of meaning, and this album continues the tradition, a smartly sad treatment on death, drinking, loss and day-to-day astonishment. In half the songs, he lets it catch up to him; in the rest, he uses electric guitar to sweep it away, to lesser effect.

Westerberg's oddly stretched and lovely version of Jackson Browne's "These Days" is a nice coda to the album, with the song's last words serving as a summation of all he meant to say: "Don't confront me with my failures. I have not forgotten them."

Taking on a scatter-blues and country-rock persona called Grandpaboy in a separate new Westerberg album seems a good enough idea, but "Dead Man Shake" sounds like a toss-off, like a songwriter sitting in with a bar band that just happens to know the nine (of 14) new blues grinders here.

Despite some well-intentioned Hank Williams covers, the only compelling reason to play this album again is the remake of the John Prine-Steve Goodman song "Souvenirs," which sounds, not surprisingly, like a regular old Westerberg song.

-- Dean Kuipers

Another Paris derides Bush


"Sonic Jihad" (Guerilla Funk)

*** 1/2

It's unlikely anyone has been enjoying President Bush's recent approval ratings slide more than Paris. The fiery Bay Area rapper's fifth album contains several selections that indict the Bush administration for everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to duping minorities into joining a military that he feels exploits them.

"What Would You Do?," in which Paris argues that Bush has benefited by the war on terrorism, might even cause some Bush supporters to reexamine their position, while "Sheep to the Slaughter" criticizes the media for what he sees as one-sided coverage.

But politics isn't Paris' only concern. He blasts the materialistic, misogynistic bent of contemporary rap on "Ain't No Love" (which features an impressive guest verse by underrated rapper Kam) and "Lay Low." Indeed, this powerful 16-cut collection could be justifiably compared to the most stinging, thought-provoking music of such better-known rap acts as Public Enemy and Ice Cube.

Obviously influenced by Parliament and Funkadelic, much of Paris' self-produced music has a decidedly funky feel, even though it's often sinister too. By making music that moves the mind as well as the body, Paris completes his mission.

-- Soren Baker

A country great

with much to say

Merle Haggard

"Haggard Like Never Before" (Hag)


With its focus on youth and pop polish, country music radio has been so cold to the genre's great veterans in recent years that many, including Emmylou Harris and the late Johnny Cash, have had to turn to rock or the Americana formats for exposure.

But Haggard continues to stand his country ground, and this collection on his new Hag label shows how much he still has to say.

Last year the Dixie Chicks scored a big hit with Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone," a song that evoked the names of Haggard and other country greats to point out how country radio has lost its soulful edge. The chorus: "Now they sound tired, but they don't sound Haggard."

In the opening track, Haggard has so much fun with his name in a song about being tired of life on the road that he titles the song "Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)."

There are a couple of throwaway tracks, but the highlights find Haggard writing about love ("Because of Your Eyes" and "I Dreamed You Didn't Love Me") in ways as haunting as his early work, and he throws in the most thoughtful song yet about media, government and Iraq ("That's the News").

-- Robert Hilburn

Quartet evokes

pop, punk icons

The Rapture

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