The Blue Hawaiians
If you popped the swanky voice of Chris Isaak and the ultra-surf-lounge stylings of the Aquavelvets into a blender and set it on pure, out would pour the Blue Hawaiians. It appears that this local foursome have found the spot where lounge and surf music meet, without borrowing too much from either—they have neither the ferocity of Dick Dale nor the cheese of Martin Denny. Their music is about the bending notes of a Stratocaster and the lilting riffs of a pedal-steel guitar. Lead picker Mark Sproull and steel-guitar player Gary Brandin have their instruments doing the kind of things banned in most states (on "Experiment in Terror," the strings do some sultry dancing). Singer Mark Fontana can sound like Isaak when he wants to, but he's not nearly as whiny. "Flesh & Soul" and "A Cheat" sound straight out of the Lava Lounge, with their hints of secondhand smoke and dry martinis that linger on Fontana's voice. But they've also done some interesting things with songs like "Sway" and "Trouble Bay," tunes that take on a Latin feel with horn sections and sweet, sweet melodies. The real swinger, though, is "Lonely Star," a country ballad steeped in pain, heartbreak and pedal-steel. Take a swig of the Blue Hawaiians, and you won't regret the fierce morning hangover—they're as diverse and rockin' as a bartender's bag of tricks. (Matt McClellan)
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Kool Keith Black Elvis/Lost in SpaceRuffhouse/Columbia
Kool Keith is a scatterbrained, freestyling, rhyming joker. Since his return to hip-hop (he was a member of '80s rap pioneers Ultramagnetic MCs) with 1995's Sex Style, the porn-loving Keith has put out albums as Dr. Octagon and Dr. Doom. Both were cartoonish, spaced-out slabs o' perversion that kept the boys laughing and the girls cringing. Now Keith is back with his weirdest persona yet: a rapper who doesn't have a parental-advisory sticker on his album. For now, Black Elvis/Lost in Space finds Keith trading in profanity for parody and storytelling. He starts off with "Intro," in which he wonders aloud about the false flashiness and stale styles of mainstream hip-hop. "Supergalactic Lover" is a spoof on hip-hop love songs, with its chorus about a lover "Coming from the projects on the hill/In my monkey-green ragtop Seville." I don't know what "monkey-green" looks like either, but listening to what Keith is saying isn't nearly as fun as just going with his flow. His delivery always sounds spontaneous and naturally potent, like a good drummer. His style is captivating enough that you can forgive him for being silly and falling into the trap of rapping too much about himself, his peers' faults and his sexual hang-ups (the cornerstones of most rappers' lyrics these days). Keith did all the production here, and the eerie samples and simple beats work, but they seem a bit weak behind the dynamic cadence of his rapping. (Michael Coyle)
The Hot Club of Cowtown Tall TalesHightone
The second release by the Hot Club of Cowtown should be the main text for the hordes of wannabe swing bands out there. With band members in their late 20s and early 30s, this exceptional Austin-based trio brings a youthful zeal to its potent mix of western swing, hot jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards. In one sense, Tall Tales belongs to another era—several Bob Wills covers transport you back to dusty 1940s Texas dancehalls. But this is no pure nostalgia act—the Hot Club use their feel for the past to create something unique and energizing. Whit Smith's crisp guitar licks, Elana Fremerman's frenetic violin flourishes and upright bassist Billy Horton's propulsive rhythms form the CD's sonic core, with tasty guest turns provided by cornet player Peter Ecklund, pianist Joe Kerr and second fiddler Marty Laster. For the most part, the ensemble playing cooks, highlighted by the opening track, "Draggin' the Bow"; Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang's aptly titled "Wildcat"; and a timeless kiss-off tune, "Darling You and I Are Through." The tender "Always and Always" and "When I Lost You"—featuring an oh-so-fine solo from Ecklund—finds the band just as capable of slowing to a simmer for a heart-wrenching ballad or two. Okay, so the tepid lead vocals (shared by Fremerman and Smith) need some work. Worry not—the instrumental chops are such a hoot that you probably won't care. (John Roos)