JOHN MICHAEL MONTGOMERY
John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic 82728)
One of the advantages of working in a style as tradition-bound as country music is that lacking original ideas is never held against you. By the same token, the only thing capable of keeping those well-worn ideas from coming across as cliched is conviction. Trouble is, John Michael Montgomery comes up short on both counts. Not only are the songs on his new album, "John Michael Montgomery," about as inspired as its title, but he ends up treating the material as if he were selling it by the yard. Sure, he's versatile, moving nimbly from the high-octane boogie of "Cowboy Love" to the weepy refrain of "I Can't Love You Like That," and he seems as at home with the brassy Western swing of "Just Like a Rodeo" as he does with the Loggins & Messina-style rock of "Holdin' On to Something." Listen closely, though, and it's hard not to wonder if the real reason Montgomery can handle such a wide range of styles is that he has so little invested in any of them. As a result, though "John Michael Montgomery" is often entertaining, it's rarely convincing and not at all fulfilling.
White Zombie (Geffen 48062)
That Rob Zombie is a connoisseur of comic books will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his band, White Zombie. It isn't just that the group's albums are festooned with bizarre, often baroque doodles; the music itself is essentially cartoonish, built around exaggeration, caricature and a gleeful devotion to stylized violence. Needless to say, that's not likely to endear "Astro-Creep: 2000" to America's grown-ups -- even if the album does boast the subtitle, "Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head." What non-fans will likely object to is the piston-like insistence and machine-like monotony of White Zombie's super-distorted guitar riffs, each of which seems determined to bludgeon the beat (not to mention the listener) into submission. Fans, on the other hand, will not only relish that relentless aggression but will savor the subtle differences between tunes, doting on the slide-guitar sludge of "Real Solution #9," getting down to the synth-spiked crunch of "More Human Than Human" and trancing out to the tribal percussion pulsing beneath the thunderclap chords of "Blood Milk and Sky."
BLUE NOTE BLEND
Various Artists (Blue Note 32862)
It's seldom a promising sign when an album exists not as an end in itself but as the means to promote fast food, licensed characters or some other form of overpriced lifestyle accessory. Somehow, "Blue Note Blend" not only overcomes its tawdry tie-in status but almost manages to make its strictly commercial origins forgivable. Conceived as a cross-marketing venture between Blue Note Records and the Starbucks Coffee chain, the album is meant to evoke the caffeine-fueled cool of classic '50s jazz -- think beatniks, berets and Ray-Bans, and you've got the visuals. To their credit, though, the folks at Blue Note fleshed the image out with some first-rate music: Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser," Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," Chet Baker's "Let's Get Lost" and more. True, purists may chafe at the album-closing inclusion of US3's "Cantaloop," but then again, this album wasn't designed for purists -- it was meant for beginners, and for them, it's an even tastier treat than the coffee. Which ain't bad, either.
THE WOLF THAT HOUSE BUILT
Little Axe (Okeh/Epic 64254)
These days, we think of a blues beat as being a shuffle, a jump or a boogie, but there was a time when the blues moved to rhythms as deeply hypnotic as any club groove. That was the power behind the music of Charlie Patton or Tommy Johnson in the '20s, and it's the spark that burns beneath the thoroughly modern surfaces of Little Axe's "The Wolf That House Built." Not that Patton or Johnson would likely recognize their connection to the music Skip "Little Axe" McDonald and his pals make; with its deep bass, thrumming tablas, spacey keyboards and dub-style editing, it seems about as down-home as a London disco. But the rhythmic spirit generated by McDonald and his crew -- which includes fellow Tackhead vets Doug Wimbish, Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood -- is so close to the primordial blues groove that it has room enough to accommodate such old-timey touches as the spiritual embedded in "Never Turn Back." And it even manages to make the voice of Howlin' Wolf himself seem at home (as sampled into "Ride On" and "Wolf Story"). And how many modern bluesmen could make that claim?
Joe Henderson (Verve 314 527 222)
Because so much of jazz venerates the art of improvisation, it's easy to forget that the goal isn't always to play the longest, most adventurous solo possible. When Joe Henderson plays the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim on "Double Rainbow," his solos expand the rhythmic ideas and play with the harmonic possibilities, but they never lose sight of the melody. That's one of the reasons this 12-tune tribute seems so close to the spirit of Jobim's work; the other has to do with Henderson's taste in playmates. For five songs, he's working with Brazilian musicians, including pianist Elaine Elias and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, and their subtle, supple rhythm work emphasizes gentle, insistent pulse and soft, harmonic pastels central to the music. For the rest of the album, Henderson works with American jazzmen, including pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and while they have no trouble conveying a convincing feel, the playing is edgier and more aggressive, exploiting the harmonic depth and compositional dynamism of Jobim's work. Between the two, "Double Rainbow" draws upon a fuller range of Jobim's strengths than most recordings.