Regional Playback

The Matrix
The lack of a centralized music scene in Northeast Ohio can make local players feel as lonesome as the Unabomber and as powerless as a homeowner who can't get city hall to put a stoplight on her block. It does, however, make for a diversified crop of talent. Songwriters and musicians know they have to rely on themselves and not the city's rep or a built-in fan base. Witness these CDs recently offered by your neighbors, past and present:

Joseph Arthur left Akron for Atlanta and then London and now lives in New York--an appropriate travelogue for an artist on Peter Gabriel's Real World label. The 27-year-old's second record for Real World, the EP Vacancy, precedes a full-length album to be released this fall, but don't think this is some haphazardly done one-off. Arthur's creamy voice and sophisticated song structures take pop music to the rarefied air breathed by Guided by Voices, Frank Black, and Hayden at their top of their games. Arthur manages to be creepy, sexy, pathetic--and a damn good harmonica player (the out-of-left-field harp part on "Making Mistakes" would give Neil Young and Springsteen reason to pause). Simply put, a great album.

Veteran Cletus Black offers pleasing, blues-based bar rock on his self-titled disc. Toes tap, but there's no reason to wake the neighbors. There are few occasions on Cletus Black where the singer doesn't worry about keeping the beer drinkers happy. "No Moon Night" has neat shuffle and Robbie Robertson-esque vocals. Rootsier numbers like "Black Diamond" and "Rapid-Fire Love" show tenderness and a texture the rockers lack. Black's also surrounded by a great cast, including Dave Morrison on harmonica and guitarists Kevin McCarthy and Alan Greene.

Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" is one of the worst rock songs (and videos) ever made. Over tinny acoustic guitars, Jon Bon Jovi sang of the hardships of being a rock star with sweaty passion. Yeah, adoring fans, supermodel girlfriends, and cheese trays--that's a tough life. Put-in-Bay regular Ray Fogg makes similar errors on Waves (Sweetwater), which has not one but two songs about being a Put-in-Bay regular. On the opener "Sit Right Back Down," Fogg sings, "I got some brand new strings on my guitar/I got a nice tight pair of jeans." What next, the route he took to get to the gig? Fogg knows his way around a pop tune, and his strong voice suits the material well, but by "Modern Day Cowboy," the listener feels less entertained than bombarded with the singer's ego.

In the liner notes to its CD Got Marbles Inside (New World of Sound), Fuzzhead divides its song list into four "sides." Indeed, the disc does recall the double-album ambitions of the '70s, clocking in at a meaty 72 minutes. At its best, Got Marbles Inside realizes the arty pretensions of such beat-of-a-different-drummers as Can, T. Rex, and Beck. The sound is trippy without slogging in psychedelia, industrial without being too frosty. Seventy minutes is just too long, though; by the second half of Got Marbles Inside, Fuzzhead isn't playing songs as much as it's making background music for space-rock geeks. If band and producer had done a little editing, this might have been a terrific album; instead, it's too dense to recommend enthusiastically.

One day music historians will attempt to explain the Hootie & the Blowfish phenomenon. A good band, certainly, but one that had no business selling as many records as it has. The Mike Farley Band hopes Hootie-like acoustic rock sounds still have juice. On On the Edge of Somewhere (RTT), Farley does a nice job of balancing his roles as singer/songwriter and band frontman. When he succeeds ("No Easy Answers," "Save Me"), Farley trades paint with songsmiths the likes of Tom Petty and Lindsey Buckingham. But over the course of the album, Farley's deficiencies--intricacy and urgency--keep the listener from ever reaching for the volume knob. Appealing but not filling.

Royal C-Town Records's Compilation Album features the Watchdog and the Gatekeeper, "the first and only white hardcore female rapper," the press kit boasts. Bad move. The two rappers have nothing new to say (liberal use of profanity and a song about cop killing) and no new way to say it (AC/DC did that hell's bells thing years ago). Their studio time should have been given to DJ Dub D and J.D. Alexa, whose R&B sound is nothing extraordinary, but visionary by comparison.

Talented musician Vince Menti plays all the guitars, bass, and harmonica on Pieces of Blue Sky. He's not a bad singer and songwriter, either. His voice has a high-pitched vulnerability similar to Elvis Costello's, and his brand of power pop is light and bouncy. The record does tend to wear out its welcome (most every song is 45 seconds too long), and Menti steps in a few piles of lyrical doo-doo ("Every day just comes and goes/There are no guarantees/The world keeps spinnin' 'round/But no one rides for free").

Quick hits: IchlYga has a clever guitar sound and a fondness for the Cars, but its self-titled disc loses points for its often emotionless drone and the umlaut in the band's name . . . The men of Roger Houston appear to have talent; their grunge gravy-training (especially the Bush imitations) keep it under wraps . . . The violin has improved countless rock songs, however Skies of Grey would have been better served not using the instrument in every song on Good Mourning, or placing it so high in the mix. The lyrics need to break their reliance on meteorological terms (clouds, sunshine, rain), too.

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