FILE UNDER: EASY LISTENING
Sugar (Rykodisc 10300)
A loud guitar is no big deal in itself; any idiot with enough amplifiers can make your ears ring. But a loud guitar that conveys the weight, fury and nuance of a Mahler symphony -- that's something to crow about. That's one reason guitarist Bob Mould is the main attraction in Sugar. As the ironically titled "File Under: Easy Listening" makes plain, he orchestrates the overdriven roar of guitars with more taste and intelligence than anyone around. That's not to say Sugar is strictly a one-man show. "Company Book" is a stirring showcase for bassist David Barbe, while drummer Malcolm Travis does for the music's rhythmic intensity what Mould's amplifiers do for the harmonic end of things. Mould, though, is the band's main attraction, and it hardly matters whether he's fleshing out a hook as pop-friendly and direct as the chorus to "Your Favorite Thing" or invoking a melancholy as deep and troubled as that described in "Panama City Motel" -- his deftly layered electrics and acoustics get the job done with such grace and verve that the only rational response is to reach for the volume knob and crank it.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
Bad Religion (Atlantic 82658)
If punk rock actually does celebrate the anti-intellectual side of rock 'n' roll, then Bad Religion really shouldn't be considered a punk band. After all, the band's new album, "Stranger Than Fiction," is full of big words and complicated ideas, from the title tune with its allusions to Kerouac and Wolfe (and the memorable assertion that "Life is the crummiest book I ever read") to the almost poetic depiction of corporate culture in "Inner Logic." But the truth is that punk never really was as D-U-M dumb as its detractors imagined, and despite its advanced vocabulary, Bad Religion fits quite comfortably within the punk Weltanschauung. Besides, on a musical level, it's hard to think of the band's roaring, Ramones-style guitars and relentless double-time drums as anything but punk -- even if the best of these songs are fleshed out with catchy choruses and pop-savvy vocal harmonies. Punk that's smart and tuneful? Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
Jeff Buckley (Columbia 57528)
Because he's the son of the late Tim Buckley, it's tempting to expect Jeff Buckley's recordings to recall the jazzy meanderings of his father. Instead, the songs he presents on "Grace" evoke nothing so much as folky experimentalism of mid-period Led Zeppelin. Like Led Zep, Buckley is equally fond of the ethereal and the heavy, moving naturally from angelic purity to twisted demonic intensity. But Buckley does the mighty Zep one better by managing to evoke the two extremes simultaneously. At times, that takes the album to giddy heights, as on "Mojo Pin" or "Lilac Wine," songs that vividly convey the kind of passion Jane's Addiction only alluded to; elsewhere, it opens emotional depths that lend a harrowing intensity to such songs as "So Real." Whatever his approach, though, Buckley's choirboy voice and razor-edged guitar make for a stunning combination, one most listeners won't soon forget.