Paul Westerberg has always straddled the line between shambling punk overflowing with irony and a straightforward singer-songwriter not afraid to express his sensitive side.
The appeal of his original band, The Replacements, was its ability to hammer out drunken raucous lo-fi anthems and then veer into an aching ballad. Westerberg's solo career has leaned more heavily on the latter side of his songwriting, and "Folker" is no exception.
Kicking off with the silly but pointed "Jingle," which is a remarkably catchy plea for someone to use his song as a commercial, "Folker" sounds like it's going to be a loose rocker.
Then Westerberg settles into a midtempo groove as he tackles issues of mortality, both his father's - the poignant, richly detailed "My Dad" - and his own on "Looking Up In Heaven." Not afraid to look at mid-life crises without turning away, Westerberg tosses out lyrics like "the vices of the parents soon reveal themselves in the sickness of the child" with a believability that is almost uncomfortable.
But when he rocks out on "Gun Shy" or "$100 Groom," the results are less favorable. Always at ease with shambling rockers, part of Westerberg's charm is his willingness to be sloppy and loose. Unfortunately his voice is too often a tattered bray and the uptempo songs come apart, making them seem unfocused.
- ROD LOCKWOOD
No Doubt lead singer Stefani got some big-time help for her solo debut: Dr. Dre, Andre 3000, New Order, Wendy & Lisa are among those lending a hand. The disc begins on a confident note with "What You Waiting For?" that rides on speaker-rattling bass and drums, and Stefani's musical influences reach from power pop with an '80s edge on "Cool" to an R&B ballad, "Luxurious," and synth-pop on "Crash." The disc also carries some dead weight, however, and for too many of its 12 tracks is derivative and uninspiring.
- RICHARD PATON
Believe the hype: There's something magical happening with "The Polar Express." Music this sweet and genuine only comes along once every few years, bridging musical generations along the way. The G-rated soundtrack has a clever train of background music so fun and dashing that Tom Hanks sounds great whether he's a quick-tongued narrator on the title track or doing scat on a neat little ditty called "Hot Chocolate." There's a light Christmas rocker, too, called "Rockin' On Top of the World." Hitting the right pitch is none other than Aerosmith's Steven Tyler.
- TOM HENRY
Jazz trumpeter Russell Gunn, who earned Grammy nominations for two of the first three volumes of his "Ethnomusicology" set, ends the series with a hot performance recorded last March in Atlanta. Gunn has a rich, melodic tone to go along with a wildly enthusiastic curiosity about experimentation. Hence the "Ethnomusciology" project, a blending of roots-sensitive Afro-rhythms with modern electronic fusion, R&B, and other genres. Gunn's first love - hip hop - is obvious in his style, but he doesn't allow it to overwhelm his project, either.
- TOM HENRY
Sisters Elsa, Linda, and Sonja Dyer sound remarkably like the Andrews Sisters, so it's no surprise that they open this album with the classic "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." From there, they slather on a full measure of patriotism in their pop/country crossover ballad, "My Lucky Stars And Stripes." Of special note is the uptempo, country-flavored "Daddy Tried," with outstanding vocals and a catchy melody hook. Overall, this is decent listening, though uneven, with a couple of outstanding tracks but no knockout.
- KEN ROSENBAUM