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Published: Saturday, 1/17/2009

Michigan's Stewart Francke has well-rounded new disc

This live set was recorded at Ann Arbor's The Ark, and Francke lives in Huntington Woods, Mich., so there's a strong regional connection.

Let that link be reason enough to check this out if you are unfamiliar with Francke's music, because even a cursory listen will be enough to impress on you that he is an original talent deserving of national exposure. His songs rock or can be reflective; his lyrics are thoughtful and smart.

He sounds at ease on stage, too, chatting amiably with the audience between some of the songs, offering background that enhances our understanding of those tracks and reinforces the listener-singer connection.

With a band that, despite the "unplugged" in the title, regularly rocks out and locks into tight grooves - especially on the hot "House of Lights" - plus backing singers and horns, Francke proves himself a capable frontman, his voice having the range and adaptability to match the material.

"Alive," which is due for release Tuesday, opens to the hard-charging and socially conscious "American Twilights" and rocks again on "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." But Francke quiets things down on "The Judas Kiss" and "Peace Like A River" with its soulful chorus. And he offers a wonderful slice-of-life homage to garage bands on "Two Guitars, Bass & Drums," with his vocals given a retro quality that nails the tenor of the song.

He closes out with a brief but great version of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," and it's just the right song to end the disc, suggesting the soul that is inherent in much of Francke's own music, and also linking the earlier days of Motown with Francke's contemporary sound.

- RICHARD PATON

Too quirky for their own good? Probably. Too catchy for words? Most definitely. Likely doomed to unfortunate obscurity? Hopefully not.

honeyhoney is Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe, a young pairing with a knack for deceptively simple, finely wrought songs that are like fine aural paintings, filled with nuance and craft.

The band's debut album features a fetching mix of jazz, country, and chamber pop set off by smart lyrics and Santo's rich voice. An actress - she's appeared on Law and Order and Blind Justice - she delivers each song with personality.

The arrangements are tight - opening track "Black Crows" has a Beatles-like feel - thanks to production by Jude Cole and the multi-instrumental skills of Jaffe and Santo. The breakup songs - "Sugarcane" and "David" - ooze a brutal honesty, and the rest of the disc features sharp lyrics that cut without drawing too much blood.

In a perfect world, you'd hear these songs on the radio every day.

- ROD LOCKWOOD

These 14 tunes are quintessential honky-tonk, barroom country. A few ballads are mixed in for a change of pace, but it's mostly two-steps and dance-hall shuffles with an occasional quicker pace.

Dale has one of those warm, mellow, resonant baritones perfectly suited for songs of hard living and hard loving. The lyrics aren't deep or even thought-provoking, but they tell simple stories and set the mood for interesting melodies.

It's the lack of fancy phrasing or subtle nuances that makes Dale's stuff so powerful. There are hints of hope and some regret in the songs, but it's basic, straightforward country music steeped in tradition. Dale wrote four of these solid numbers.

- KEN ROSENBAUM

Granted, this isn't the best-timed release - not with George Bush leaving office this week and Barack Obama ascending to the White House on the theme of change, including the gradual removal of troops from Iraq.

But Kenneth Bays, managing editor of Blues Revue, last fall teamed up with a German blues label called Ruf Records to produce an album of little-known protest songs that is smart, quirky, irreverent, and just darned funny at times.

Featuring the likes of Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, Guitar Shorty, the Pat Boyack Band, Bob Brozman, and others, the lyrics are pointed, uncompromising, and intelligent; the musicianship is passionate and full of heart. Bays said in a recent interview that he was inspired by indie music associated with MoveOn.org.

His 12-track collection of small-label songs includes two recorded in 2004 and 10 others since then, though the set plays like a recent group project. Sure, this isn't going to compete with the best of the Vietnam-era folkish stuff, nor is it straight blues. But it has the power, the allure, the texture, and the intangibles of a solid, if not slightly off-kilter protest album.

- TOM HENRY

The 14-track Punisher soundtrack features the first new music in three years from Rob Zombie, plus songs from groups such as Slayer, Seether, Slipknot, and Rise Against. It's a dark and bleak, hard-headed rocker that wails without purpose. It's sloppy and suffers as much from monotony as a lack of vision, though - if you're looking for something with sheer gut-pounding, sweaty in-your-face attitude - well, you'll get a lot of that here. - T.H.


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