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Many of the songs need work, and while there's much fine guitar playing, there's too much repetition. On the other hand, a couple of these acts could end up going places. So who comes out ahead? I'd give finalist status to the speedy punk-to-dub stylings of Mirror 66 and the Gothic atmospherics of Swoon. Rotoglow gets the bronze for power, dynamics and song craft. The Oregon Hill Funk All Stars deserve silver for their horns, hipness and Gil Scott-Heron flavor. And the gold goes to Bankshot, for its bristling and infectious ska number. Bankshot offered the most complete package, and its effort sounded most like a finished product. — Andy Garrigue

Skillet "Alien Youth" (Ardent Records) Barring all of the nonsecular connotations found in its lyrics, the Christian-industrial/alt-rock band Skillet will rock the world of both orthodox and atheist alike. As Christian music's answer to Marilyn Manson (oh, the irony), Skillet successfully translates its loud, aggressive and abrasive stage sound to its latest effort, "Alien Youth." The group's music will easily appeal to Nine Inch Nails fans, assuming they can at least respect the views of Skillet (if not openly embrace them). Amid furious, fire-and-brimstone minisermons such as "Vapor," "Eating Me Away" and the record's opening title track, the band also takes a few moments for quiet reflection on "You Are My Hope" and "One Real Thing." Led by the visionary husband-and-wife duo John and Korey Cooper, Skillet is one of the best Christian-inspired rock bands I've ever come in contact with (even if the lyrics come off as a little too preachy at moments). If religious-intensive music groups could regularly let loose to the extent bands such as Skillet and P.O.D. do consistently, there might actually be more widespread appeal among the youth and a willingness to lend their ears to musical evangelists a lot more interesting than Creed. — Angelo DeFranzo The Mary Janes "Flame" (Flat Earth) This fine independent release from the Indiana-based Mary Janes is shot through with themes of conflict and hope that hold out for a brighter day. Fronted by singer-songwriter Janas Hoyt, the group'sstripped-down and free-flowing sound weaves a struggling yet hopeful path from "Junie Moon," who "stands deep inside her stocking feet," to the band's final upbeat take on Tom Petty's "Free Girl Now." Throughout the troubled trek, Hoyt's passionate delivery states her case well, whether it's searching for freedom and satisfaction or looking at love gone wrong or standing up against the odds. Set against a musical backdrop of rhythm guitar, bass, drums, violin and pedal steel, Janas uses dynamics and emotion throughout without overstating either. Particularly effective are the sexy, slide guitar-driven groove of "All I Want" and the acoustic "Downtown" with its poignant and restrained acoustic tale of murder. At times country-folky, at other times rock 'n' roll with a twist, "Flame" is a well-crafted, smart project from a group that deserves to be heard. — Ames ArnoldMason Jennings "Century Spring" (Architect Records)

Mason Jennings is a shiny new twentysomething. He's garnering some national acclaim and has just released a third album on his own label. It sounds like ol' Mason is having a good time. He writes some nice melodies and has a sweet voice that he commands well. But Jennings needs some more mileage to thicken up his lyrics. Even by pop standards, these are Pablum.

These 10 songs are chock-full of mimicry and banal idealism. So be it. Most young, aspiring artists develop their own style by imitating their idols. Most are innocent enough to be idealistic to a fault. Those facts don't make Jennings' musings any less insipid, though. Despite the clean production work and catchy melodies, the songs here are little more than dorm-room paeans and heartbreak hollers sung like George Harrison, Tom Petty, Paul Westerberg, Beck, et al.

Throughout the album Jennings reminds us that "love keeps growing," "life keeps flowing" and "this ain't a movie." Riveting. There's a lot of love in this album, too much to take seriously. Add to that the vagaries and cliches and the result is just another indie-pop album. But take heart, Mason. Time is on your side. Life goes on. You live and you learn. Don't let the bastards get you down. Today is the first day of the rest …

— Randall Stamper

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