Reviews of news CDs from The Goo Goo Dolls, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Neil Halstead and Reverend Horton Heat.

The Goo Goo Dolls

Thirteen-or-so years ago, Buffalo's Goo Goo Dolls were the world's best Replacements rip-offs. Their first three albums bristled with short, blazing, cleverly dumb songs of identity and heartache that stripped everything down to the basics and made the basics complicated. They played loud. They covered The Plimsouls. They had an elderly eccentric, The Incredible Lance Diamond, sing one fiery cover on each.

Ironically, it was a collaboration with Paul Westerberg for 1993's Superstar Car Wash that heralded the Dolls' metamorphosis into pap-culture deities. "We Are The Normal' contained all the elements that would come to define their biggest hits — simple acoustic riffs, a swelling, orchestral dynamic and Johnny Rzeznik's plaintive, pouting vocals. And nearly a decade later, it's exactly what their audience expects and exactly what the Goo Goos deliver. Gutterflower might as well be Dizzy Up The Girl, which might as well have been A Boy Named Goo. Rzeznik is still content to be pretty and hurt. Bassist/songwriter Robby Takac still wants to rock more than Rzeznik. The same semi-ballad will be a big hit, this time in the form of "It's Over.'

They also still drown almost every track in a wash of production and pretense. A few always survive, but the number of these dwindles with each successive release, and here, only Takac's driving "You Never Know' and Rzeznik's sparse, countrified "Sympathy' deserve even one complete run-through. Both tracks shine, and it's more than just in contrast to dreck like "What a Scene,' "Smash' or (God help us) "Truth is a Whisper.' How much more, however, depends entirely upon one's threshold for digging through predictable, overwrought chaff in search of a few stalks of grain. (Warner Bros.)
—Scott Harrell

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Plastic Fang

Stick a fork in it. Shovel dirt on the grave. Cash out. JSBX's one-trick-pony act was tired an album or two ago — Plastic Fang only prolongs the embarrassment. The trio's urban deconstructionist take on blues, R&B and old rock 'n' roll — which has long bordered on being a minstrel show — has become labored and annoying. This music is supposed to pummel along on sheer verve and unharnessed power; instead it's fully become a forced parody. Can't blame Russell Simins; his aggro drumming provides what little groove-based spark there is. Can't really blame Judah Bauer; his thorny guitar work, although largely forgettable, provides a decent bedrock. No, place the blame squarely on Spencer, who's faux swagger is an affront, who either sings like a hopelessly off-key Jagger or a cartoon Elvis, who can't resist hollerin' "rock and roll' like a buffoon, who can't play guitar to save his ass. Blame the songs, written by committee, slapped together and aimless. Break up, guys. Judah and Russell can always find other, better, bands. Jon is a good-looking cat — he might find work as a VJ. (Matador, www.matadorrecords.com)
—Eric Snider

The Promise Ring

Remember the Promise Ring that spearheaded the evocative posthardcore movement known as emo, before moving on to succinct, guitar-pop genius? Yeah, they're gone. The simple-yet-effective modus operandi of both guitarist Jason Gnewikow and vocalist/lyricist Davey von Bohlen (who infamously quipped that the doctor responsible for removing his brain tumor a few years back had also taken any remaining fast songs) remain intact; it's the songs themselves that have grown. Wood/Water is a sprawling dose of psychedelic pop-Americana, so deep and wide that one might get lost within its borders if not for the band's familiar, engaging introspection. Keyboards, varied percussion and the occasional looped beat augment tracks virtually free of Marshall-overdriven power chords. The disc meanders along, stopping every so often to further inspect some distraction or other, perpetually caught between the upbeat and the melancholy. "Stop Playing Guitar,' "Become One Anything One Time,' "Half Year Sun' and "My Life is at Home' provide standouts, but nothing here comes off as weak or overreaching — there's no sense that the group is sacrificing quality in the name of something completely different. In sum, Wood/Water is a lush, gentle, drifting lesson in the art of evocative songcraft, from a band that managed to capture the spirit of their own dynamic while rendering something that's stylistically lightyears removed from their past. God, the kids are gonna be pissed. (Anti-/Foreign Leisure/Epitaph)
—Scott Harrell

Neil Halstead
Sleeping on Roads

Mojave 3's first album, Ask Me Tomorrow, was excellent. The two follow-ups were disappointing forays into disposable '70s easy listening. Sleeping On Roads, the new solo album from founding Mojave 3 member and former Slowdive spearhead Neil Halstead, is a step in the right direction. He hasn't quite made his way out of the '70s yet, as evidenced by sleepy vocals, quiet production, horns and occasional touches of polite, analog synth. But this time Halstead's songwriting mercifully leans more toward Nick Drake than James Taylor. There are even stray hints of Simon & Garfunkel on the more stripped-down acoustic numbers, particularly "Martha's Mantra.' The most upbeat tracks — "Seasons,' "See You on Rooftops' and "Driving With Bert' — are the most memorable. Most of the others are so slight they pass like breezes: pleasant, but no longer felt when gone. (4AD)
—Ashley Spradlin

Reverend Horton Heat
Lucky 7

The eighth full-length from this Texas trio mixes druggy, trip-hop rhythm loops with a touch of new wave and some Radiohead-esque skewed electronica. Oh, wait ... no it doesn't. Sorry, flaked for a second. Horton Heat's trademarked brand of raucous roots-punk, rockabilly, surf and swing is still very much in effect. Lucky 7 offers up pretty much what you'd expect, albeit in its loudest, most distorted and punk-fused incarnation since before It's Martini Time. Cars, booze, dead-end romance and stand-up bassist Jimbo's cool quotient are the topics of choice. Overdriven guitar, fleet drumming and slap bass compose the preferred method of delivery. Ed Stasium's usually slick production can't contain the Reverend's smoldering guitar tone — Lucky 7 is thicker than previous RHH releases, but there's little to no loss of rawness. Those looking for the threesome in standout form get satisfied early, with the double blast of "Reverent Horton Heat's Big Blue Car' and "Galaxy 500.' After that, it's pretty much back to business as usual, which is never less than good. (Artemis, www.artemisrecords.com)
—Scott Harrell

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