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Paul Westerberg/Grandpaboy
Come Feel Me Tremble/Dead Man Shake
Vagrant/Fat Possum

Who'd have guessed the "ladder of success" Paul Westerberg complained about was the one leading down to his own basement?

After the critical and popular belly flop of Suicaine Gratification (worst ... title ... ever?) in 1999, Westerberg retreated to his DIY cellar studio and emerged three years later with Mono/Stereo, a Jekyll & Hyde double-disc that revitalized a solo career on life support.

Now, the fall of '03 sees an avalanche of new Westerberg material, including two more homespun full-lengths and a DVD, Come Feel Me Tremble , which chronicles his comeback tour in '02. Another record, Folker, is in the can and set for an '04 winter release.

One of the new basement recordings, Dead Man Shake, is a messy mix of blues and roots-based originals and covers released under his Grandpaboy alias. This disc is no threat to the legacies of Son House and Robert Johnson, but it's sloppy, loud and fun enough to overcome most of its muffed licks and wince-inducing rhymes (Westerberg winged the lyrics; it shows).

The blues format isn't typically associated with Westerberg's brand of angst, but the 43-year-old former leader of the Replacements and unwitting voice of a bitter generation knows disappointment, and his world-weary voice has always borne its own blue timbre.

The songs on the soundtrack to Westerberg's upcoming film -- Come Feel Me Tremble) (Nov. 11) -- share the same intuitive feel of the best 'Mats rock & roll. The CD features all new material and none of the live songs from the film. But it's tragically back-loaded meaning many will tune out during the ho-hum opening. Big mistake: after the first third the record gathers an infectious momentum trumping most of his previous solo material.

"Knockin' Em Back" may revive the on-going rumors that Westerberg is on the sauce again, but it just might be the best song about drinking he's ever written; given this artist's history, that's saying something. Alternating swing-jazz-flavored verses with anthemic punk choruses, this song's enfant terrible energy belies the age of the man who wrote it. So does "Pine Box," a five-and-a-half-minute, slide-guitar driven swamp boogie that ought to embarrass artists half Westerberg's age mining the same musical vein.

The record closes with a couple of tender ballads -- Westerberg's own "Meet Me Down the Alley" and Jackson Browne's "These Days" -- that recall the best Replacements' tearjerkers while allowing a more mature Westerberg to sing them.

Neither record is a masterpiece, or even a coherent full-length statement. But both offer compelling evidence that Westerberg has rediscovered his muse -- which, as everybody knows, is the first rung on the ladder of success.

Tracks to burn: "Do Right In Your Eyes" (Dead Man) & "Knockin' Em Back" (Come Feel Me Tremble).

Grades: C+/B+.

-- John Schacht

The Shins
Chutes Too Narrow
Sub Pop

The Shins' last full-player, Oh, Inverted World, had more critics abuzz than a thousand open-bar listening parties ever could. It was the Sunny Delight of 2001: nourishing and sugary, but with enough acidic bite that you knew it meant business. Depending on who you asked, people claimed to taste all sorts of musical fruit in the band's summery brew: The Beach Boys, Teenage Fanclub, and even Sunny Day Real Estate (no doubt due to the "sunny" reference).

Ironically, songwriter/vocalist James Mercer recorded a large part of this album in his Seattle basement, which no doubt contains many cast-off travel agency posters of places like Puerto Rico and St. Kitts. There's hidden calories in the music, however, thanks in large part to the lyrics of Mercer, who might be one of the few indie songwriters not named Stephin Merritt who can be literate without coming across as a complete and utter bore. As for the title, your guess is as good as mine. I get the mental image of a fat kid going down a waterslide that narrows as it reaches the pool below. Which might be an apt analogy, actually. It's probably all going to end in disaster, but the kid's gonna have the time of his life on the way down.

Track to burn: "So Says I."

Grade: A-

--Timothy C. Davis

Strike Anywhere
Exit English
Jade Tree

Richmond activists Strike Anywhere have followed up their impressive 2001 full-length Change Is a Sound with another consistent collection of compelling, impassioned melodic hardcore. While tighter and less lyrically specific than its predecessor, Exit English continues to split the difference between old-school ideas and new-school execution, relying heavily on simple riffs, shout-along choruses and familiar tempo dynamics to anchor intelligent, evocative tunes about individuality, social injustice and civil disobedience. And most of it works to breathtaking effect, strengthened by the odd ingenious guitar part and vocalist Thomas Barnett's visceral charisma. The crushing, rant-along end of "To The World" is every bit as effective as Zach de la Rocha's "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" refrain, but far less likely to be adopted as a zombified fraternity chant. Exit English isn't quite perfect -- while there aren't any clunkers, the band doesn't seem to really hit its stride until almost halfway through. But Exit English is well-nigh unimpeachable, one of the most inspiring punk releases to come along, well, since their last one.

Track to burn: "Lights Go Out."

Grade: B

--Eric Snider

Spirituals: The Best of Spain

Vocalist/bassist Josh Haden and Spain came on the rock scene with a whisper, not a bang. Spain's slow shuffle may seem gloomy at first, but the jazz-wrapping showcases Haden's preferred mode of travel through less trekked, yet sensuous, alleyways. This disc combines tracks from their three recordings as well as the mandatory extra live and unreleased tracks. The jazz influences must be in his blood since Josh is a child of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and the band prefers to caress rather then coax the instruments into their natural spaces. The live tracks were recorded for radio on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," and include covers of Kurt Weill's "September Song" and Willie Nelson's classic, "Funny How Time Slips Away." This is a worthy history of the now defunct band, which left behind a legacy of music that may not be exactly spiritual but is surely meditative.

Track to burn: "Funny How Time Slips Away."

Grade: B+

--Samir Shukla

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