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Let’s Eat!

Hungry Jack
Sumo Prostitute (Street Cheese)

Galloping unabashedly out of Jeff Krulik’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot is the mighty Hungry Jack with this Spam-spankin’ new opus. Here we have Glens Falls’ most raucous and quite possibly only metal band coming of age (or at least sinking, amid a bubbly ocean of cholesterol, into it) with this homespun bad-hair beauty, Sumo Prostitute.

Let’s face it: Lead singer Smokey Toenails will never exude the frothing, entropic debonair of the early Alice Cooper. Axman Quai Chang Christ probably will never “unleash the fury” or assault airline stewardesses like Yngwie Malmsteen. But the ghosts of 1982 bleed through the walls here with a barrage of ornery guitars and a whole lotta bathroom humor. You can almost smell the hot locker-room cooking during chestnuts like “Smothered in Onions,” but the band stand out from many other Mad magazine aficionados attempting in vain to use the cast of Hot Shots! rejects to recapture the ruptured satirical genius of Spinal Tap or Jim Henson’s Riverbottom Nightmare Band.

What sets them apart, believe it or not, is good storytelling. These guys are actually really funny. Each 4-minute lightning bolt is rife with brazen, nauseating imagery, from the marching “Wooden Legs” (“The squirrels hate my guts/They try to steal my nuts/I’m happy as can be/It’s wooden legs for me!”) to the mere title of the forlorn ballad “Fritos on Your Breath.” Mr. Toenails and troupe, beneath goofball rubber masks and shoulder pads, understand the viability of the objective correlative, punctuating verses with seemingly irrelevant imagery that somehow manages to tie the whole thing together in a more alarming manner: “A sumo prostitute, naked in your town/Sumo prostitute, dancing in his thong/Sumo prostitute, yes he loves to eat/Sumo prostitute, pretty, pretty feet!” Yecch.

The only downside is that some of this material has been in the Hungry Jack catalogue for quite a while. It would be nice to get a collection of fresh, er, stew from these guys, but this fact is offset somewhat by the inclusion of a cool sticker in the jewel case, which appears to be the Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon 6. Of course, this makes it even clearer that 99 percent of the general population will never truly appreciate the sheer, unmitigated audacity of Sumo Prostitute, but I’m OK with that. Two, please.

—Bill Ketzer

Frank Black and the Catholics
Show Me Your Tears (SpinArt)

Several albums ago, the rela- tively prolific Frank Black found the perfect way to record himself and his band, the Catholics: direct to two-track. Far from being a lo-fi solution, this approach celebrates the integrity of the band interplay. The songs on their latest, Show Me Your Tears, are well arranged, their dynamics all firmly in place—so it’s less about trying to capture an elusive moment (as with Van Morrison’s continual quest) than to maintain the energy of a live performance. Careful craftsmanship is in evidence every step of the way, from the songs to the playing. Judiciously employed flourishes and details (such as the piano on “Massif Centrale”) add mystery and magic, and reward repeated listenings. Black’s vocals inhabit the songs with an offhand ease that belies a depth of facility, grown over the course of a solo career that now approximately doubles the run of the Pixies. Commercially he may be toiling in the shadow of his erstwhile combo, but artistically he’s gobbling up the American landscape with commendable resilience, verve and invention.

—David Greenberger

Gavin DeGraw
Chariot (J)

Clive Davis has one of the most unblemished records in the history of the recording industry. Over the course of nearly 40 years in the business, he’s discovered and developed the careers of Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin, Springsteen, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys . . . need I go on? His latest protégé is Gavin DeGraw, a 26-year-old white kid from the Catskills who sounds like Stevie Wonder. Seriously. This kid is good. Real good.

Chariot, DeGraw’s debut album for Davis’ J Records imprint, is a meaty slab of piano- driven, radio-friendly singer-songwriter fare that manages to have both mass appeal and artistic integrity. He’s an earnest lyricist, dealing primarily with the topic of love—young, unrequited, familial, and so on—with a wide-eyed innocence, accessible to both the kids and their folks without being overly precious. Mark Endert’s production is top-notch, as we might have expected from one of Clive’s kids, but it’s the economy with which the songs are delivered that is a pleasant surprise. A formidable band, including Michael Ward (the Wallflowers), Joey Waronker (Beck) and longtime collaborator Alvin Moody nail down these 11 songs with surgical precision, while DeGraw’s apt piano playing and soulful vocals are stuck right up front in the mix (as they should be). Endert keeps things organic; instead of dumping tons of sugar all over the place, he just lets the players do their jobs. The resulting performances simply pulse with kinetic energy. Granted, DeGraw’s commercial well-being likely will be decided at the hands of AAA radio programmers, and he occasionally treads dangerously close to being soundtrack-suitable for the WB network, but I’d bet the farm that in 10 years we’ll be listening to his fifth or sixth hit record, wondering, “Who the hell was Jason Mraz, anyway?”

—John Brodeur

Van Morrison
What’s Wrong With This Picture? (Blue Note)

One of his best albums in years, this is a fitting debut for Van Morrison on a legendary jazz label, as well as a crossover coup effectively targeting the baby-boomer market.

It seems the mega-selling Norah Jones paved the way for Morrison, signing with a stylish label long identified with bop and postbop. Morrison is a particularly good fit because he’s been scrambling genres in a deeply improvisatory way for more than 30 years.

What’s Wrong With This Picture? is generous and eclectic and funky as hell. Not only does Morrison meditate on celebrity and fame from the inside—he doesn’t sing rock & roll, he says in the sultry “Goldfish Bowl”; his art is “folk with a beat,” jazz and soul his métier—he’s backed by a gang of terrific British players, including “Stranger on the Shore” clarinetist Acker Bilk and the killer guitarist Mick Green, and he’s peppered his palette with traditional Morrison pastorale (“Somerset” and “Little Village”) and a few choice covers.

Like a fine Burgundy, Morrison’s voice ages extraordinarily well, giving his reading of “Saint James Infirmary” orchestral power and making his fierce rockabilly take on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Stop Drinking” unexpectedly striking and rootsy.

At first, this album’s 13 tunes seem to dwell in the gap between authenticity and performance, which Morrison has tried to figure out and bridge since his days with Them. But as one listens, the subtext becomes clear: What’s Wrong With This Picture? is a meditation on the necessity to persevere, to express oneself no matter the genre, and to be true.

Like Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Morrison seems to have rediscovered his muse in late middle age. He’s keeping his “game uptight” and he’s never sounded more committed, authoritative and funky. This is an essential album affirming that Van is still the Man.

—Carlo Wolff

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