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Now Hear This

Avail, The Donnas, Tori Amos, LL Cool J, The Shiners

"But look at yourself/You've got your head held in your hands" is just one poignant line from the album's opening track "Black And Red" and it hints at the empathy, introspectiveness and self-awareness that are some of the underlying themes found in the lyrics of Avail's sixth studio record. Melancholy tracks such as "Done Reckoning" also illustrate the band's level of maturity and sophistication at melding words and music in order to create an atmosphere of pensiveness and reflection. However, the angry side of Avail still shows through during the animosity-filled tracks "You" and "Monuments."

With what's already a decent effort, Avail's "Front Porch Stories" only continues to solidify the band's reputation for great songwriting, which, in turn, walks hand-in-hand with the group's furious stage persona. — Angelo DeFranzo

Tori Amos "Scarlet's Walk" (Epic) ****

Does a country, like a person, have a soul? Can it be lost? More importantly, can it be found again? Tori Amos' newest release, "Scarlet's Walk," is a concept album, a "sonic novel," whose central character, a fictional "Everywoman," finds herself on a long, lonely road trip across America. As she travels, she discovers that her own complicated innerscape of confusion, pain and loss is reflected in the country around her. Scarlet is America. As Amos says, "After Sept. 11, people were experiencing America as a friend, as a being, who was hurt."

Amos draws deeply on her Cherokee heritage, and in songs such as "Scarlet's Walk" and "Virginia," historical violence becomes present physical violence: "She's a girl out working her trade, and she loses a little each day to ghetto pimps and presidents."

Although her lyrics are typically elusive, Amos' music is masterfully layered, textured and intensely present. Her voice, more patient and searching than usual, cuts right through the words and gets to the place inside them. Ironically, in this politically oriented album, you'll find a more contemplative, companionable Amos — a voice and a story that might fit snugly in your ear during a long road trip.

— Jennifer Anderson

LL Cool J "10" (Def Jam) *

Don't be confused by the title of LL's new album, "10." The number signifies how many albums Cool James has now dropped, not his latest effort's rating on a 10-point scale. If that were the case, this one would more appropriately be dubbed "4 1/2."

As usual, L has plenty of tracks for the ladies. He just doesn't have his usual classic. No "I Need Love" or "Doin' It."

Too many of the songs sound like any ol' hip-hop record you'd hear on the radio. While the beats for some of the slower songs are catchy, for the most part, they're nothing special.

The beats on the harder tracks, such as the Neptunes-produced "Clockin' G's," are better. Still, a few solid tracks aren't enough to make this album classic LL material.

What's worse, L disappoints big-time on "After School," a collaboration with P. Diddy.

The lyrics: "I know a girl named (fill in name), she" blah blah blah.

The hook: a borrowed section from Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Add some borrowed Rob Base lyrics from "It Takes Two" and a smidgen of Biz Markie's "Vapors," and you've got a disgrace.

Give LL credit for his longevity — he's been in the game 17 years now — but "10" may have been one album too many.

— Nick Bowton

The Donnas "Spend the Night" (Atlantic) **

Sad to say, but the Donnas haven't aged well. The formerly blistering teen rockers "turned 21" on their previous album and, judging from their fifth release "Spend the Night," it's all downhill from there. Let's take a look at the Donnas, then and now:

Then: Kiss, "Rock and Roll All Nite."

Now: Kiss, after they took off their makeup.

Then: Lyrics made you cringe in awe.

Now: Lyrics just make you cringe — "He's a stain I can't get out/ I've tried bleach and I've tried Shout."

Then: The Runaways.

Now: Lita Ford solo.

OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but this new album just doesn't move it for me. The Donnas have largely abandoned the neo-Ramones gimmick that all their names are Donna, yet somehow the band seems more gimmicky and cartoonish on "Spend the Night."

"American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine" was a lo-fi, '70s-rock cherry bomb of an album. "The Donnas Turn 21" turned up the riffs and the raunch. "Spend the Night" is mostly a snooze.

— Dave Renard

The Shiners "See Rock City" (Planetary) ****

"See Rock City" is a great soundtrack for one of those days the Shiners capture so well. An early morning after a night of too many drained whiskey bottles finds you waking up on the ground flat busted and bleary. Opening your eyes and lifting your head, you enter a strange world. Scarecrows scream in your ears and cemetery trees crack in the wind as a hurricane blows in from the South.

Things do not bode well, but as you pick yourself up, you hear the far off sound of high country harmony and knocked-out drums. Intrigued, you stumble toward the barn down the road where the music of a big bottom bass, a sexy fiddle and twanging banjo, lap steel and guitar draws you like a phantom magnet. You enter the barn and collapse on a pile of hay as the band rips off one great original song after another. You dig it all and understand so well these countrified rock tunes about a life lived on the edge, a life of pride and heart and liquor.

Despair and fragile hope hang in the sad Hank Williams moonlight, and laments and shame surely pour from the thundering skies. But, in the end, you know all is well as long as the stars shine down on sweet Dixieland so fine. The Shiners capture the roaring soul of it all so gloriously on "City" you just have to stomp along. Soon that whiskey hangover is gone, and by gawd it's time to start working on another one. The hurricane that's blowing in will damn well take care of itself.

— Ames Arnold

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