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Marty Stuart
The Pilgrim
(MCA Nashville)

Marty Stuart has carefully fashioned a country music outsider's image (i.e., the guy doesn't wear a Stetson), and while his ability to pick up any stringed instrument and master it is above badmouthing, his albums, like those of his hatless amigo Travis Tritt, tend to be as unexciting and run-of-the-mill as the commercial heavyweights he allegedly is rejecting. Busy Bee Café, the acoustic album Stuart made on the folk/bluegrass label Sugar Hill, isn't the best thing the man ever released.

The Pilgrim might not be as righteous as Busy Bee, but it's Stuart's best major-label effort: an irresistible mixture of honky-tonk country, tear-jerking ballads, country rock, and exquisite (what else) picking.

Stuart has done his part in the current 1970s revival by recording a concept album. The stories told in the songs on The Pilgrim are based on people Stuart claims to have known as a youth in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yeah, they would have to be. Had any screenwriter delivered a corny script like this — a hackneyed tale of love, jealousy, and suicide — he would be shit-canned on the spot.

Fortunately, the clichéd story is eclipsed by the beauty of the songs themselves. Most of them could stand on their own, but still manage to connect nicely to the theme. Things drag only near the end, where heavy-handed strings in the background create a totally unnecessary melodramatic effect. And why the heck did Stuart and producer Tony Brown end this album with an instrumental version of "John Henry"?

Because this record has so little in common with Hillbilly Rock and The Marty Party Hit Pack, it could be commercial suicide. Stuart's fans, however, are supposed to be a loyal bunch. Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash aficionados will love The Pilgrim. Let's hope Marty Stuart's legions do, too. — Steve Byrne

Ministry
Dark Side of the Spoon
(Warner Bros.)

Ministry leader Al Jourgensen doesn't like to talk about, and has disowned, his band's first album, a synth-pop stew sound barriers away from the industrial crunch of his later work. Years from now, Jourgensen will probably feel the same way about Dark Side of the Spoon. At least he should. Buoyed by lazy beats, sluggish rhythms, and general sloppiness, this three-years-in-the-making album is a dismal peek into the world of a band losing its purpose; the chainsaw hard-liners don't stun anymore, they bore.

And once the shock tactics of the title (a hackneyed reference to Jourgensen's heroin-related troubles), cover art (a naked obese woman in dunce cap scribbling "I will be god" on a blackboard — a move that got Dark Side of the Spoon banned from Kmart), and band reputation wear off — which doesn't take long — there's not much left to this slim disc. The music has grown languid over the years; the synth-driven post-Goth has evolved into mind-numbing repetition. Over and over again, Dark Side cops an aggressive stance but doesn't follow through.

Even Ministry's best work, like 1992's Psalm 69, has been mired in excessive theatrics. How else to define the leather-and-chains decor of the band's stage shows and the dramatic thrust of each and every song that earnestly screams "showpiece"? (The 1991 single, "Jesus Built My Hot-Rod," is the one moment where everything worked for the band. It remains its sole masterwork.) Dark Side, however, takes it all for granted: the songs, the poses, and the styles. It's a pointless excursion by a man who thinks someone still cares about what he has to scream. — Michael Gallucci

Freestylers
We Rock Hard
(Freskanova/Mammoth)

The Freestylers give good head music. On their debut album, the London DJ crew appropriates tons of big-beat electronica into their cranium-spinning (and ass-shaking) grooves. Reaching back for some old-school hip-hop ornaments and spiking each and every cut with amplified booming bass, the Freestylers indeed rock hard, spinning modern dance music along monster beats.

Just don't look for anything beneath We Rock Hard's sonic bluster. This isn't DJ Shadow or Roni Size or Goldie or any of those guys who expect you to chill and soak in their ambiance. The Freestylers — coming at ya like a muscle-bound version of contemporaries the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim — want you to dance to their music, thinking about it be damned. And there isn't much to pick and dissect here anyway; what you get is what you hear.

Which is just fine in the Freestylers' universe. Signing on pioneer production team Soul Sonic Force to assist on one song and dropping hip-hop samples from the golden era of rap, they're all about the grooves. (Check out "Here We Go," a scratch-and-toast collaboration with Definition of Sound, and "Drop the Boom," a celebration of Afrika Bambaataa's initiatory electrofunk.) Cybernetic flashes surge through each song with an intensity that almost dares you to play them at low volume. This is loud music, club music — a brainless chunk of electronic dance tunes for the end of the millennium. — Gallucci

Regional Beat

Time No Reason
Inner Works
(Sinister Bop)

Akron band Time No Reason's Inner Works starts promisingly enough. "Silence" begins with a pleasing psychedelic guitar line; a militaristic drum beat kicks in, followed by the bass; a second guitar adds to the tension. Then, when the verses begin, things fall apart: "Silent changes/Stem from the inside, yeah/Yet wishful thinking seems to preside here/Moving forward, but all stands still." Huh?

On its third release, Time No Reason makes the common error of trying too hard to sound both intelligent and poetic. The lyrics, by and large, are the tortured nonsense of a boyfriend who can't make sense of his exasperating girlfriend. "She sits all day in the rain/She mutters things that aren't quite the same/But I love the things she says/All in the rain," goes "Rain." On "False Memory," "indoctrinate" is rhymed with "inoculate." The song "Heretic" predictably finds room for the word "rhetoric." Credit the band for reaching for themes more substantive than cars and girls, but as on tracks like "Sex and Money" (wouldn't you know, it makes the world go round), Time No Reason sounds immature and more than a little full of itself.

The music is of the Matchbox 20/Live/Verve Pipe variety — jangle grunge. New singer Chris O'Connell's voice matches the material: consternated, overtaxed, self-important. Time No Reason is at its best when it doesn't take itself so seriously. "Wall" has a peppy beat and a jam-bandish lilt that works nicely. Would've liked to hear more of it.

The CD release party for Inner Works is at Banana Joe's, Thursday, July 8.— David Martin

Blue Lunch
Eyes Wide Open
(Wilberts Records)

The guys have a penchant for matching facial hair (check out the album cover) and the Louis Jordan/Louis Prima-style jump and R&B that's been masquerading as swing recently. Though Blue Lunch is vested in the music — i.e., no zoot suits or tough-guy gangster talk — the style doesn't cage the group. On Eyes Wide Open, they toss in more than a few left-field influences, like Dixieland-style solos, gospel harmonies, and blues harmonica.

For most of the album, they dish out the bright, upbeat '40s and '50s fare with mixed results. Gritty saxes and an especially pungent trombone pull some tough solos; they stand out against a tight rhythm section that tends to err on the side of polish rather than edge. And the vocals, ranging from merely competent to downright uninspiring, leave much to be desired.

Let the burning instrumentals like "Louisiana Hop," "Rib Joint," and "Diminishing Returns" get you through the album's lesser moments, like the wedding-band sound on "Closer to the Bone" and the soggy cornflakes debacle that is "Prisoner of Love."

Blue Lunch is probably a band to hear live, but as a concert souvenir, Eyes does just fine. — Aaron Steinberg

Go Robot, Go!
Convertible
(Weedtone)

Kudos to Columbus band Shinola for trying something new, at least. Most obvious is the group's new name. Robots are quickly becoming the theme du jour, and robots from outer space are even better. Enter the "new" Shinola, as robots crash-landed on Earth who decide to start a band as a form of mind control. It was a cool concept — when Man or Astro Man? introduced it. For a band whose debut album tilted the level of talent expected from regional outfits, this repainting of the image is a big step backward. Shinola had the talent to make image unnecessary; Go Robot, Go! only proves the band has no talent for creating image.

Fortunately, Convertible still delivers the tunes. Mostly. "See You on the Radio" is the prophetic first track and easily the best on the album. (It's never a good sign when track one is the best cut.) After two more songs that recall Shinola, Convertible tries on the new image musically and wallows into a "Revolution No. 9"-esque experimental foray. "Idiot Boy" is the aptly titled beginning of the rut which drifts far from the usual retro imagery of roller rinks and Scooby Doo and into something completely unexpected. The simple fact of the matter is that pop bands write pop hooks; they should leave experiments to Zappa, and ballads to Richard Marx.

Bands shouldn't stagnate, but nor should an image overhaul be required on a sophomore release. Why robots? Why so much more attention to image than new songs? If a decade of albums had preceded Convertible, it would have been a refreshing change of pace, but in this scenario it's merely a schizophrenic attempt at amateur marketing savvy.— David Powers

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