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A canny country debut

Pop Music | RECORD RACK

August 06, 2006|Randy Lewis;Soren Baker;Steve Hochman

Eric Church

"Sinners Like Me"

(Capitol Nashville)

* * *

IT often seems that novice country singers are required to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, or at least trumpet them in their songs, as a way of creating an instant bond with an audience all too willing to throw its loyalty behind anyone whose flag flies the right colors.

This Granite Falls, N.C., native does just that on his enticing major-label debut album, which has just entered the country album Top 10. Unlike so many ultimately undistinguished singers who've come before him, he expresses himself in ways obvious enough to snag the casual listener yet subtle enough to make the perceptive listener dig in to figure out who he really is and what he really believes.

On the surface he's part Bible-believing, parent-loving, hard-drinking hell-raiser a la Hank Jr., Travis Tritt and Toby Keith, part sensitive modern cowboy like ultra-lovable Keith Urban.

The juxtaposition makes for intriguing contrasts, lending the songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, greater dimension than we've come to expect out of pigeonhole-happy Nashville in recent years.

The title song is a pulsing country rocker that casts him as the latest in a long family line of bad boys, but Church winds up widening the net to place his protagonist in the same boat as most of humanity. In "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag," he dutifully doffs his Stetson to Merle Haggard in an age when Garth Brooks seems to be the role model for many.

Some of his canniest writing shows up in "How 'Bout You," which at first sounds dogmatic about his long list of beliefs. But when he punctuates each unequivocal statement with a "How about you?" suddenly he's trying to create a dialogue rather than provoke an argument.

He's been overeagerly compared to Waylon Jennings, John Prine and Haggard, but some of his songs echo those of other musicians more than establish his own individual stamp: "These Boots" walks ground covered in the Everly Brothers' "These Shoes," and "What I Almost Was" skillfully revisits the theme of Garth Brooks' "Unanswered Prayers."

But in a quieter way, Church brings a freshness to mainstream country similar to what Gretchen Wilson did in her barnstorming of Nashville's doors a few years back. And anyone who can do that and still get on the radio deserves a hearty "Amen."

Randy Lewis

**

Rapper's pattern repeats itself

Rick Ross

"Port of Miami"

(Def Jam)

* * 1/2

WITH his sinister, organ-propelled ode to drug dealing, "Hustlin'," cemented as one of the biggest rap songs of 2006, this Miami rhymer has all eyes on him with the release of his major-label debut album.

The drug trafficking-centered collection is a solid, well-produced affair but one that doesn't always live up to the excitement surrounding Ross' rapid ascent to national prominence. A capable but largely unimaginative rapper, Ross gains most of his points for his stellar beats, his commanding voice and his repetitive phrasing, where he'll often use homonyms (or just repetition) as his punch lines. It's a clever concept that loses its luster after the second or third time per song, or verse, when he's relying on it too heavily.

Living lavishly, boasting of his ability to traffic cocaine and warning his foes not to cross him make up the crux of the lyrical territory covered on album standouts "Push It," "Blow," "Cross That Line" and "Where My Money (I Need That)" -- essentially a retread of "Hustlin'."

In the first verse of "Pots and Pans," Ross delivers a compelling narrative about struggling, but he loses focus, turning the tune into a shallow declaration of his gangster status. This song is like many on the album: They start off strong but lose steam by the time the beat fades.

Soren Baker

**

A blast of fresh rock from Comets

Comets on Fire

"Avatar"

(Sub-Pop)

* * * *

THE Bay Area group's 2004 album, "Blue Cathedral," was stunning -- literally in the sonic assault of its neo-psychedelic freakouts, figuratively in the creativity and abandon brought to the form. "Avatar" shows that to have been a mere steppingstone while also pointing to potential galaxies for future exploration.

Opener "Dogwood Rust" starts where "Cathedral" left off, the sheets of guitar from Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny, the drums of Utrillo Kushner, the flowing bass of Ben Flashman and the electronic sweeps of Noel Harmonson weaving a dense but shifting curtain. Yet right off new elements are evident, notably a focus on melody with two voices often fighting for the lead. The piano-based country-blues waltz "Lucifer's Memory" even veers toward Americana but avoids trite rusticisms as it swells in intensity. Throughout there's a remarkable balance of power with delicacy, chaos with control.

Comparisons ranging from Quicksilver Messenger Service and others of the 1966-68 Fillmore scene (the blues-country-rock blasts and evocatively stream-of-consciousness lyrics) to Ornette Coleman's '60s free-jazz explosions (the two guitarists' sword fights echoing the sax-trumpet duels of Coleman and Don Cherry) remain obvious but inadequate. The only way to track these Comets is to stand back and let them soar.

Steve Hochman

*

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed are already in stores except as indicated.

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