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Beck
Mutations
(DGC/Bong Load)

Somewhere between his indie sound and Geffen sound, Beck has created an album worthy of carrying both his Bong Load and DGC insignias. Mutations is a stripped-back collection of bittersweet ballads that brings his poetic ruminations to the forefront. Lyrically, the subject matter may not be so far removed from his previous efforts, but Mutations does seem decidedly less playful and covert than the tunes that catapulted Beck to stardom.

Though perhaps not as aurally pleasing as Mellow Gold or Odelay, Mutations showcases the indie side of Beck everyone knew was there and many longed to see. With his new effort, the lithe showman bears a little more of the soul he usually veils behind his Geffen sound.

Concentrating mostly on treatments of lost love and regret, Mutations is perhaps best explained with "Bottle of Blues," where the songwriter observes, Ain't it hard/To want somebody/Who doesn't want you? It is such melancholia that defines the album, lacing all the tunes with a mournful tint. The most musically upbeat track, "Tropicalia," a lounge-like, bossa nova cut, even manages to dip into the darker side of Beck, as he cynically considers the poverty inherent in tropical tourist traps. Though Beck always seemed "older and wiser" in his music, with Mutations he has also become more worldly, being in a position now to look back over his own last few years.

In "We Live Again" he admits that These withered hands/Have dug for a dream/Sifted through sand/And leftover nightmares/Over the hill/A desolate wind/Turns shit to gold/And blows my soul crazy. Mutations seems very much a response to this self-deprecating observation that his previous efforts have turned "shit to gold"; after all, most good artists are their own best critics, and perhaps it was this that drove Beck to record a more "serious" album. Either way, it was high time he allowed a glimpse of the other side, both for himself and for his fans. It only follows that such an effort would bear the unmistakable mark of his craft but also seem like a departure from his usual sound. Labeling the songs "mutations" seems to be the perfect explanation.

--David Powers

Alanis Morissette
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
(Maverick)

There was something so incredibly engaging about Alanis Morissette's debut release, Jagged Little Pill, that you couldn't help but get caught up in it the first time you heard it. There is no way her second album legitimately can be tagged as epitomizing the dreaded sophomore jinx, but it's no Jagged Little Pill. It doesn't have that immediate slap-you-in-the-face, sit-up-and-take-notice urgency of its predecessor, though it does have its bright spots and will probably earn multiplatinum success. But clearly, it's a different record.

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is a 17-song collection that is compelling at its best and uneven at its worst. Morissette's penchant for repetitive listing that popped up in a few of the songs on the first disc returns in abundance here. A prime example is the disc's first single, "Thank U." Each line of each verse in the song starts with How 'bout, and each line of the chorus starts with Thank you. It's simple, catchy, and effective. It works with great success here, but it becomes more of a gimmick than a stylist thing after a while.

And the gimmickry is employed song after song. In "Are You Still Mad" everything is Are you still mad I . . . "That I Would Be Good" repeats the title in each line. You get the same shtick in "I Was Hoping," "Would Not Come," "Joining You," and a number of others.

So much for how she says what she has to say. If you look at what she has to say, you get more of the same--Alanis on Alanis.

There is a lot of introspection, purging, and breast beating. "The Couch" is a visit to her shrink, "Can't Not" is a turn to face intimidation, and "One" brings the writer back down to earth with a self-inflicted reality check, albeit with a wonderful, funky but slow dance groove.

Other points of interest include "Are You Still Mad," which builds from a simple piano and vocal piece into a full-bodied affair with some Led Zeppelin-like escalations of accompaniment--string swells and the like. Morissette comes within inches of becoming Tori Amos in the similarly piano-based bit of wail-filled drama, "Your Congratulations."

The best stuff on the album is in the most conventional offerings. Morissette adds a pretty bit of flute to "That I Would Be Good" that sells the piece. "So Pure" is a very engaging, bass-heavy dance track ... perfect for a single. "UR" excels with a simple pop configuration and is highlighted with a splash of the singer's super-simple harmonica playing.

A lot of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie may be too deep or complex for much of Morissette's following. It may even be too heady for the writer herself. If it's weighed down by anything, it's too much self-help therapy: Morissette swimming around in her own head looking for enlightenment.

--Lee Barrish

Oasis
The Masterplan
(Epic)

It's no surprise that there's a wealth of quality material to be heard on Oasis' new B-sides compilation--after all, we're talking about one of the most successful bands of the decade. Oasis' B-sides, the subject of much hype in the band's native England, stack up pretty well compared with their studio counterparts. But that doesn't necessarily mean The Masterplan is an album that will convert listeners indifferent to the band's anthemic rock.

The content on this album was partially dictated by the input of fans on the band's Web site, and it's expected that nearly every "notable" Oasis B-side is present here: "Fade Away," a staple of the band's early live set, the orchestrated pop ballad "The Masterplan," and a juiced-up rendition of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" have long been fan favorites.

But the standouts are the songs where songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallagher indulges in influences that rarely shine through Oasis' recorded output. Two of the best are drawn from the 1995 "Some Might Say" single: "Underneath the Sky" is a strident, minor-key lovely that updates the best of the Smiths, and current single "Acquiesce" recalls classic stadium rock with the Gallagher brothers' perfectly executed vocal harmonies and more guitar hooks than Clapton's meat locker.

On the softer side, the acoustic, Noel-sung "Talk Tonight" and the ultra-pretty "Rockin' Chair" (ignore crap vocal performance from bro Liam) prove elder Gallagher's status as one very talented tunesmith.

Oasis is nothing if not derivative, but is so in the best possible way. As such, the bulk of these B-sides sound alike (or a lot like certain album tracks), particularly the far too long "Listen Up," which is basically "Supersonic" with more major chords, and "Stay Young," a hand-clapping sing-along that subtly swipes numerous bits from other songs.

That doesn't mean those songs are boring, but some definitely are. "Headshrinker" sounds like something Noel wrote while enrolled in Britpop 101, and "Going Nowhere" is a gaudy exercise in unoriginal songwriting and the blaring horns that come standard issue. These two could easily have been replaced with the marvelous Definitely Maybe-era outtake "Alive" or the Stevie Wonder-nicked "Step Out" (he sued, prompting the song's ouster from 1995's What's the Story Morning Glory?).

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to justify a band with only three studio albums under its belt releasing a 14-track B-sides album. But Oasis is not a normal band. Indeed, at its best, The Masterplan is better than most bands' regular efforts. At worst, it's a fine way to pass the time until Oasis releases its next opus.

-- Jonathan Cohen

Jonny Lang
Wander This World
(A&M)

Seventeen-year-old guitar sensation Jonny Lang has been turning heads for over two years now. His independent release, Smokin', moved over 25,000 units and drew the attention of major labels. His 1997 debut Lie To Me shot up the charts and found Lang touring with Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones at an age when most kids are studying algebra. Lang also appeared with Wilson Pickett on the Blues Brothers 2000 soundtrack and made guest visits on albums by such mentors as B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

Most high schoolers haven't the audacity to even dream about Lang's accomplishments. Then again, scant few people Lang's age can rip on a Fender Telecaster the way he does. This young blood has been there and done all that--and he's not even old enough to drink. One can only imagine the kind of blues Lang will reckon with in his adult years.

For now, though, there's Wander This World--a superb sophomore album that has Lang playing and singing with a voice far beyond his years.

All 12 tracks are sublime in their own right, and each attests to Lang's maturity as a writer and performer. The blues still tug at this kid's heartstrings--but now he's smart enough to reconcile his emotions and indulge in a little bit o' soul.

Lang has plenty of friends along for the ride, including Richie Hayward (drums), David Smith (bass), Bruce McCabe (keys), and Steve Cropper (guitar). Each musician shares writing credits and informs the music with inimitable skill. McCabe's tinkling piano parts reflect the inclement weather on "Still Rainin' " and match well against the lightning of Lang's guitar work.

I am the one who loves you and I am the one who cares, Lang oozes on the funky "I Am." You could fly me to the moon if I would find you there. There's only one fellow who could take responsibility for writing sex-funk this hot. Can you say, "The Artist?" You bet. The tune's wah-wah bass and pop synthesizers almost recall the purple one in his early days. Ah, memories.

"Breakin' Me" is a poignant, open-hearted acoustic number dripping with the stuff hit ballads are made of. Listen for this one on radio soon. "Wander This World" features pretty fingerstyle guitar and dobro played by co-author Paul Diethelm.

"The Levee" and "Leaving to Stay" capture Lang in pure blues mode. On "Levee," Lang is dreaming of the proverbial Crossroads, bypassing Memphis and Nashville and heading down Highway 61 for the Mississippi Delta. But perhaps "Leaving," a choir-filled waltz, represents the spiritual center of Wander This World. I've been waiting in the wings, Lang cries, gospel-like, waiting between the ocean and the shore, like an angel afraid to fly ... the last lonely rose on the vine.

"Walkin' Away" and "Angel of Mercy" more than adequately fulfill Lang's quota for full-ahead blues rock. He strangles his guitar on "Before You Hit the Ground," whipping out trills, bends, and slides like nobody's business while mimicking James Brown's raspy voice. Unlike Wander's clean to mildly reverbed guitar rhythms, Lang's leads are searing--his notes crackle through the amps like gristle.

Lang teams with fellow bluesman Luther Allison on "Cherry Red Wine," a gritty heart-wrencher whose narrator frets as his woman drinks her life away. You keep drinkin' that wine, woman, he dares, and even the grass that grows on your grave will be cherry red.

Given his age, Lang has plenty of time to develop his style and hone his songcraft. His youth will provide a cushion, should his music ever falter. Perhaps one day, like even the greatest bluesmen, Lang's mojo will sputter out momentarily. Until then, this Minneapolis kid will continue to blow Kenny Wayne Shepard and Derek Trucks (among others) away with his leaner, more refined guitar chops and superior compositions.

--Pete Roche

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