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Home Town Hero is still a very young band and it's way too soon for it to be having a major label contract. Just take a listen to its debut if you have any doubts. While proficient at what it does, Home Town Hero still needs to mature, to find a sound that's more its own. Once this is achieved, the group's music will hopefully include the element of memorability — something it noticeably lacks at the present time. — Angelo DeFranzo



Los Lobos "Good Morning Aztlan" (Mammoth)

Los Lobos can absolutely nail Cream's "Politician" and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." They know their way around cumbias, nortenas and ranchero music. They've produced loopy, atmospheric pop full of jagged arrangements. They can create sweet ballads and greasy blues-rock.

All these disparate styles effortlessly come together on "Good Morning Aztlan," its latest studio album since '99's overlooked "This Time."

Throughout, the group again proves it's truly one of the finest American bands extant.

Highlighted by David Hidalgo's honeyed tenor, Louie Perez's Spanish swagger and Cesar Rosas' sizzling soul singing, the band presents a set of well-crafted songs produced by John Leckie (Radiohead, Dr. John, XTC). Leckie expertly juggles buzzing guitars, the rock-hard rhythms by Conrad Lozano and Perez, and Steve Berlin's honking saxes and keyboard fills.

One would think after more than 25 years together, a band brimming with creative talent like this East L.A. collective would break up or turn stale, but it doesn't happen here, and thank goodness for that. Stand this one right next to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" as solid nominees for 2002's album of the year. This is a must-have. Period. — Eric Feber



Jay Bennett and Edward Burch "The Palace at 4am (Part I)" (Undertow)

Multi-instrumentalist and arranger Jay Bennett spent much of the '90s in Wilco, leaving after recording on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" wrapped. Teaming with Edward Burch on "The Palace at 4am," it seems he hopes to partly lay claim to how he shaped Wilco's sound — layered production and adept experimentation — across five albums, two of which — "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and "Mermaid Avenue" — are classics.

As such, "Palace" takes many cues from Wilco's pop-flavored "Summerteeth" to generally good effect. Sometimes it hews too close on tracks like "Shakin' Sugar," and the duo even cover a track off the disc, "My Darling."

Though Bennett's take is sweetly sentimental, Wilco steeped it in paranoia.

But, "Palace" still has an edge. About halfway through, it shoots off in another direction — an experimental spirit takes over, a rougher texture replaces pop sheen. "No Church Tonight," with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, drips with Southern Gothic menace.

It's a good album, but a tad unsure. Bennett needs to be making his own music, but "Palace" also makes clear that Wilco's parts are almost as great as the sum.

— David M. Putney



Lauryn Hill "MTV Unplugged 2.0" (Sony)

People do not like hearing the truth.

Lauryn Hill's new album is about telling the truth as well as her spiritual journey. This raw, two-hour set of all-new music finds the former Fugee with just her voice and guitar.

Some people could be disappointed, if they expect to hear another version of her 1998 Grammy-winning "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."

She plays as long as she wants, even misplays some notes and talks extensively on each track. Her guitar playing is not polished but tolerable. The music is symbolic in that she must mature not only musically but also inwardly. She discloses to listeners that success put her in psychological chains.

The song "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" explains the point of this album. Every single song on the two-disc, 22-track album is about her struggles and about how people can free themselves from the same bondage. Each song has a strong moral and healing power.

Never before has such a remarkable artist exposed herself so nakedly to her adoring public. If you're the type of person who wants to hear Lauryn talk to you instead of her publicist or record company, then you'll enjoy this album as much as I did. — Burnice A. Cain



Marc Anthony "Mended" (Columbia)

A very busy Marc Anthony has three albums lined up this year, including "Mended," his second English-language disc since 1999's self-titled triple-platinum success.

But because Anthony reunites with co-writer/producer Cory Rooney, musically, "Mended" sounds more like a continuation of "Marc Anthony" than a fresh offering. Still, the Puerto Rican heartthrob could garner the same level of accolades he received during the Latin explosion of the '90s.

"I've Got You," which pairs his angst-laced tenor with contemporary dance rhythms, is already a Top 5 adult contemporary radio hit. Like the 1999 international breakthrough "I Need to Know," it has a Spanish version, "Te Tengo Aqui."

An electrifying "Tragedy," co-written by Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, is bound to be a chart-topper. It's the only track to capture Anthony's raw vocal sex appeal.

The album, otherwise, is packed with emotions running wild — from love lost to declarations of romantic bliss. And much of Anthony's signature passion seems wasted on a few poorly written tracks, such as the insipid "I Wanna Be Free."

A flawless vocalist, Anthony is burdened with the Herculean task of making up for the lack of substance. — Rose Peltier



Railroad Earth "Bird in a House" (Sugar Hill)

No slow intro.

No messing around.

No guessing what this band is about.

Railroad Earth whips out of the starting gate on this record with an early jump by the banjo, then, racing to catch up, the fiddle, mandolin and drums.

Half a minute later, the bluegrass outfit is chugging in full fury, singer Todd Sheaffer's voice reaching high: "Fire trying to drag him down, he was run, running for higher ground."

Railroad Earth jumped into the bluegrass scene just over a year ago from, of all places, western New Jersey. Their popular shows led to a five-song demo, which they uploaded onto the Internet.

The fervor fans showed for those songs got the band on stage at the country's most popular jam/bluegrass festivals before they had a record to sell. On "Bird in a House," plenty of songs that rip are paced with some aching ballads.

Beyond the terrific instrumentation, even on CD the band gives a sense that they are bluegrass with a hitch. Sheaffer's singing, the way it stretches toward the higher end of the range, hints of Jerry Garcia.

The mandolin player strokes a backbeat on a few songs. Plenty of railroad, a little earthy, too. — Lon Wagner



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