Weird Al Yankovic - Running With Scissors Weird Al Yankovic
Running With Scissors
(Volcano)
½


It's been a long time since Weird Al managed a hit with one of his sharply drawn parodies, and he certainly leads off Running With Scissors with a perfectly timed attempt his latest CD leads off with "The Saga Begins," a retelling of The Phantom Menace sung to the tune of "American Pie."

It's a brilliant marriage of song and theme the music culture's epic retelling of the early days of rock 'n' roll pirated to tell the tale of the most anticipated epic movie of all time.

It's one of Yankovic's best moments as he croons: "Oh my, my this here Anakin guy/may be Vader someday later/but now he's just a small fry." Unfortunately, given the small label he's now on, this probably won't hit the airwaves like it should. And the rest of the disc is a patchwork quilt of sometimes funny parodies mixed with rarely funny originals. An original polka titled "My Baby's in Love With Eddie Vedder" is about three years too late to have any interest and the "horrorscopes" of "Your Horoscope for Today" are only mildly amusing.

Yankovic's parodies fare better, though the Jewish jokes of the Offspring parody "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi" are as often stale as hysterical. "Jerry Springer" rips off Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" to good effect (he sings: "They have a tendency to scream and yell constantly/ they have a history of ripping off their shirts").

"Zoot Suit Riot" becomes another fat joke in "Grapefruit Diet" and "Germs" manages to sound just like NIN without giving Trent Reznor a songwriting credit. For those who love polka medleys, Al and his accordion run through a cartoon-like collage of hits including "Wannabe," "Flagpole Sita," "Walkin' on the Sun," "Intergalactic," "Ray of Light," "The Dope Show," "Mmmbop," "Closing Time" and more in "Polka Power." Bottom line: Find this for the Jedi tribute and the occasional smile.

 

Christina Aguilera - Christina Aguilera Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera
(RCA)
½


The wide-eyed pouty portrait on this album cover says it all Aguilera, a former Mickey Mouse Club girl, is another youngish sultress who has a good bunch of studio writer-producers behind her to turn a good voice and a great look into the front for a throng of throwaway dance-pop songs (that's throng, not thong). The lead single, "Genie in a Bottle" sums up the easy slinkin' beats of this disc in its chorus with a laughably cheesy yet still horribly catchy rhyme tease "If you want to be with me/there's a price to pay/I'm a genie in a bottle baby/you've got to rub me the right way." Unfortunately, its tongue-in-cheekiness makes it the most original thing on this CD, which also includes her Disney big ballad from Mulan, "Reflection," and a couple of Diane Warren-penned ballads here that also let Aguilera show off her emotional range along with her vocal slides. It's an album of lite ballads and bubblegum, but it is undeniably sweet.

 

Kyle Vincent
Wow & Flutter
(SongTree)
½


It's hard to believe that an artist who pulls a Top 40 hit off of his debut CD could end up thumbing a ride on a tiny label to release his next disc. But that's the deal with Wow & Flutter. Vincent is a strong songwriter with a teen idol voice that harks back to the sweet croons of the Cassidy brothers. Unfortunately, there's nothing on this disc as strong as his first CD's singles, "Arianne" or "Wake Me Up (When the World's Worth Waking Up For). While there's catchy stuff here, overall this disc sounds just a bit too low key.

But there are strong pop chords in the handclap-ready "Somewhere Between Hello & Goodbye" and the leadoff love pledge "The First Thing on My Mind." Hopefully, some major label will put him back in the studio with a budget and pull Vincent back to the hit highway. He's already shown he's highly capable.

 

Lyle Lovett - Live In Texas Lyle Lovett
Live In Texas
(MCA)


Why this live album is only now appearing (it was recorded in Austin and San Antonio back in 1995) is a good question, but the answer probably isn't as important as the fact that this is a great little disc. Lovett was on tour with his Large Band at the time, and the ensemble doesn't fail to entertain offering slow swing on "She's No Lady," frantic twang swing on "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)," gospel celebration on "Church" and quirky orchestral stop-start on his breakthrough hit "Here I Am." It may be a couple of years old, but the Lovett Large Band is welcome anytime.

 

The Muffs
Alert Today Alive Tomorrow
(Honest Don's)
½


The Muffs have now made the same album four times in a row, each time with a little less freshness and intensity. Given that their Buddy Holly-meets-punk breed of pop never took off at the cash register, it's no big surprise that Alert finds them on an independent label, Today. There are an unlucky 13 songs here on a typically short album (34 minutes) and fans will recognize all the styles, chords and growling vocals Kim Shattuck and co. really need to learn a new trick; this album is comfortable ... and old.

 

Travis Pickle
Travis Pickle
(Lunasea)
½


"Motorcycle Man," the leadoff track to this ill-named foursome's debut, is one of the best-sounding independent tracks I've heard this year. Glowingly warm female vocals somewhere between Echobelly and Seven Day Diary soar over a bed of guitars and male underwire support. Carla Capretto moves from sounding strong to vulnerable and back again on this alternative bar rock album that deserves a much wider exposure than a name like Pickle and an unknown label like Lunasea are likely to give it. "Misery" offers a wavery duet that smacks of early '70s with a discordant undercurrent that is undeniably today. "Better" is spare but perfectly poppy and "Cheesehead" rocks with a distortion riff that sounds like a Breeders track until Pete Min's hilarious mock drawl cuts in and the band slides into a backwoods hick send-up. Look for this one.

 

Vertical Horizon
Everything You Want
(RCA)


This album came out a few weeks ago without any fanfare or promotion, but it's an easy sell to any fans of Toad The Wet Sprocket this is the best album that Toad never made! This foursome sounds astoundingly similar to that other band, especially in the thick billowing background vocals despite not including any members of Toad. "We Are" should be an easy hit at rock radio with its pounding guitars and change-up verses. They're not as contemplative as Toad, but there are lots of middle-of-the-road rockers that should please fans of Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls and, yes, Toad.

 

DJ Rap - Learning Curve DJ Rap
Learning Curve
(Columbia)


A former club DJ turned artist, DJ Rap (Charissa Saverio) melds a scintillating blend of club beats with studio effects and her own sensual vocals to create the kind of album Madonna wishes she were making right now hip, current, modern and still Top 40 friendly. This is a disc that can cross over from the club charts to the radio with the right push and a bit of luck. "Bad Girl" and "Good to Be Alive" sound like easy groovin' lost Madonna tracks (this is what should have come out of her collaborations with William Orbit) and the headphones on the CD cover are a strong clue about the stereo shenanigans going on throughout these tracks this is bass-driving music to get in your head and stereo-tweak your brain.

 

Lords of Acid
Expand Your Head.Com
(Antler Subway)


You're probably familiar with Lords only if you're a staunch dance club frequenter or a lover of racy rhythm beds the band made its name with mixes of sex-sprinkled songs such as "I Must Increase My Bust" and "Spank My Booty," among others even more risque. This 16-song disc collects remixes of those and other Lords standards, along with a couple of new tracks. While the remixes by the likes of noted industrial artists KMFDM, Luc Van Acker and Tim Skold never manage to improve on the original songs, the leadoff track is worth finding even if only as a single. "Am I Sexy?" is the closest thing to a straight pop hit the Lords have written, and, not surprisingly, is featured in the current Austin Powers movie with its faux femme French accent, samples of '60s jazz horns and hippy organs, it's upbeat and infectiously catchy. Listen for it.

 

Cibbo Matto
Stereo Type A
(Warner Bros.)


Cibbo Matto has gotten a lot of press over the past year because of their singer's relationship with Sean Lennon. Well, while Lennon plays bass and drum and a few other things on this disc, it's the quirky songs of Yuka Honda and cohort Miho Hatori that make this a disc worth hearing. Cibbo Matto is everything that critics said Shonen Knife was (they lied).

Stereo Type A is fresh, feisty, and never takes itself too seriously. From the Japanese-accent funk of "Working for Vacation" to the kitschy '60s pop flavor of "Flowers" to the wild electronic funk of "Lint of Love," this is not the sort of album most Q101- or WLUP-FM-weaned whitebred listeners are used to. Sometimes it almost sounds like the band was just crafting a big joke in the studio. But it's as enervating and fresh as the first Tom Tom Club record was. Even when they're completely stupid ("SciFi Wasabi"), Ciboo Matto is a lot of fun. They'd be the first people I'd invite to any party.

Jazz Is Dead
Laughing Water - Wake of the Flood Revisited
(Zebra)


Fans of the Grateful Dead know that the band consisted of talented instrumentalists who tried to keep their material fresh by constantly improvising so it's a natural for a "hippie rock jazz fusion band" to take one of the Dead's more languorous albums and stretch out on its themes. Jazz Is Dead's second disc was recorded live in April, and features cameos from two artists who worked with the Dead on Flood Vassar Clements and Donna Jean Godchaux.

Actually, if the Dead were doing it, things would probably have gone much further afield from the original than these eight instrumental renderings of Wake of the Flood's songs do, but for a laid-back listen with some familiar guitar solos, Laughing Water makes for a nice soundtrack. The band will play Chicago's Vic Theatre on Aug. 13. For more info, check out their Web site at www.jazzisdead.com.

Chris Cacavas & Junkyard Love
Dwarf Star
(Inner Star)


In 1989 and 1992, Cacavas released a couple of critically acclaimed discs that garnered Neil Young and John Hiatt comparisons. Then he disappeared to Europe for the rest of the decade. For his first U.S. release in seven years, Cacavas covers Matthew Sweet's "Someone to Pull the Trigger" on this album of folky strummers. It's a good match for his somewhat weak tenor he sounds like Sweet's less intense brother.

Unfortunately, it's also about the best track on this 10-song CD, which also references Lyle Lovett in another track. Cacavas has good taste, but this album sounds like a well-produced version of what you might hear from the local folkies at your neighborhood coffeehouse there's nothing calling out for national attention or radio play here. care about the difference.