- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

Hard Candy
It's pretty clear that the members of Counting Crows weren't happy with the sales or airplay of their third album, "This Desert Life." So when it came to marketing their latest album, the band took the unusual step of appearing in a Coke commercial. After an uproar from fans who said the band had sold out, lead singer Adam Duritz responded that with MTV only playing bubble-gum pop and hip-hop there were few other ways to get face time these days.
The group's other move was much less visible but much more significant. Counting Crows hired Steve Lillywhite, the man behind the scrapped Dave Matthews disc that created quite a buzz on the Internet last year, to produce "Hard Candy." The new CD isn't any less introspective than the fleeting "This Desert Life," but Mr. Lillywhite replaces the overwhelming pretentiousness with a simpler sound.
Gone are the seven-minute tracks, the brooding, complicated opuses. Instead, many of the tracks are dominated by piano and organ, touching on jazz and blues more than ever before. For instance, "Carriage" features a saxophone solo midway through, while "Butterfly in Reverse" opts for a string arrangement instead of the usual guitar backing.
Both the title track and the first single, "American Girls," deal with a sense of longing a good fit, at least thematically for "This Desert Life." But both feel like light summer breezes, uplifting reminiscences accentuated by prominent female background singers.
"Hard Candy" also finds Counting Crows doing a bit of experimentation, some good, some bad. "If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is Dead)," isn't really about Richard Manuel, the lead singer and piano player for The Band who died in 1986. Rather, it's a tribute chock-full of 1970s-style guitars and piano that Counting Crows manages to pull off successfully. Unlike "New Frontier," a 1980s synth pop disaster, that's the only clear misstep here. Scott Silverstein

All That Is (The Songs of Garnet Rogers)
(Red House Records)
This collection of Garnet Rogers' music, taken from Canadian recordings of the 1990s, should open doors and ears for Mr. Rogers south of the border, winning him the wider audience he deserves.
It's not an easy listen, and truly doesn't come into its own until the final track, "Seeds of Hope (The Last March)," which was co-written with David Tamulevich. These songs have a literary richness that Mr. Rogers comes by naturally.
The younger brother and sideman to folk legend Stan Rogers, Garnet took to the stage alone after Stan's death in 1983. Fire broke out in the airliner in which Stan, 33, was a passenger, forcing it to land, and he was one of 23 people who died of smoke inhalation.
With a thick baritone and spare accompaniment, Mr. Rogers explores the depth of human feelings and healing in such songs as "Night Drive," a remembrance of his brother, and "Small Victory," the story of a man who buys a broken-down racehorse to save her from the cannery.
The opening song, "Next Turn of the Wheel," describes the effect of a downturn in the fishing economy on a small maritime town. It's a song Stan Rogers could easily have written and performed.
"Frankie and Johnny" admonishes us to share our feelings with our loved ones before death takes them away. In "Summer Lightning," Mr. Rogers sings, "We are frost upon a window, we won't pass this way again. In the end, only love remains."
It might take repeated listening to truly get the most from this album, but the effort is rewarding.

Jay Votel
Born to Reign
(Columbia Records)
Will Smith returns to the music scene after a three-year absence with "Born to Reign," which features the trio Tra-Knox.
The album opens on a powerful note. The title track, which is only 1 minutes long, has Mr. Smith telling his fellow artists in the music industry that raunchy lyrics are not what it takes to succeed.
The album moves to a lighter tone with the tracks "How Da Beat Goes," "Block Party" and the Latin-flavored "I Can't Stop." One of the best songs is "Give Me Tonite," which has a laid-back beat that makes you start moving and lyrics that make you want to sing along. Mr. Smith also has a duet with his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, called "1,000 Kisses." Even his son, Jaden, makes an appearance, on "Jaden's Interlude." Mr. Smith also pays tribute to his mother with "Momma Knows."
However, the highlight of this album is the first single, "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)," which is based on Mr. Smith' new movie, "Men in Black II." This song has a rock edge to it and has become a radio favorite. The album also contains a remix version of "Nod Ya Head," which is better than the original and will make you nod your head.
Although this 14-track album is technically a solo effort, the inclusion of Tra-Knox on every track provides more of a group feel. The listener will not find any foul or derogatory language, but then again this is not your average rap album. It is a combination of rap, hip-hop and pop.
Between music and acting, Will Smith proves that just maybe he was "Born to Reign." Amy Baskerville

Girls Get Busy
(Lookout Records)
It's been three years since Bratmobile re-formed after releasing two critically acclaimed albums and being at the forefront of the "Riot-Grrrl" movement in the early 1990s. This will be the band's second album since getting back together. Although the songwriting has matured, the propulsive energy that drove those earlier albums is missing.
The group's basic punk sound is intact upbeat melody, surf-style guitar and politically charged lyrics but this formula is beginning to wear a bit thin after four albums. The almost monotone delivery of singer Allison Wolfe gets dull and pales in comparison to the increasing melodism of similar acts such as Sleater-Kinney.
The record's main strength is in its politics. The trio tackle everything from the war on terrorism to violence against women.
One of the high points is "Pagan Baby," which lets drummer Molly Neuman step from behind her kit and show off her unpolished, yet sincere vocals. Bratmobile has its heart in the right place, but the musical delivery doesn't always do justice to the weighty thoughts behind it.
Derek Simmonsen

Sha Sha
(ATO Records)
At age 20, Ben Kweller has had more musical experiences than some artists twice his age. He started writing songs at age 8, influenced by his dad's buddies (Nils Lofgren among them). His band, Radish, was signed to a major label while he was still in his teens. Now a solo artist, Mr. Kweller has recorded his second full-length album, which is the first to realize the promise he showed as a young songwriter.
His penchant for witty storytelling opens "How It Should Be (Sha Sha)" with the line "When I was a movie star an asteroid had hit the Earth and prematurely ended my career." The simple piano melody gets punched up with backing harmonies from bassist John Lattanzi and drummer John Kent that turn the song into a cross between a Ben Folds track and a leftover from the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" sessions.
Not one to stick to the same influences, though, Mr. Kweller adds a power-chord heavy chorus on the next song "Wasted and Ready," which drops the piano pretensions and moves into Weezer's power-pop territory. That's not all. He sounds a little bit alt-country on the acoustic-guitar-driven "Family Tree," downright wistful on the delicate piano ballad "In Other Words" and cranks up the grunge pedal on the opening and chorus to "No Reason."
There is a clunker track here and there (the bland "Commerce, TX"), but for the most part Mr. Kweller's songwriting skills shine through, backed up by just the right amount of power-pop anger and beautiful harmonies. "Sha Sha" isn't a masterpiece, but at the rate he's going, Mr. Kweller should have recorded several masterpieces by the time he hits 25. D.S.

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