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Reviews of CDs by Used Carlotta, Jars of Clay, Dynamite Hack and Ween

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Used Carlotta, "reckless wheels," (Planetary) — From the joyous opening rambles of a heaven-bound believer through sadder tales of death and mismatched love, to the final raw instrumental reprise, "reckless wheels" is a twangy first-rate treat. Recorded without overdubs at Richmond's Sound of Music studios, the whole project lopes along with a laid-back, front-porch feel that reminds you that the best recordings aren't complicated or gimmicky. Louis Ledford's smart and insightful tunes capture a range of spiritual and emotional moments, and he sells them with a friendly, soulful baritone that convinces a listener without even trying. The band fills in tastefully throughout with guitars, bass, drums, sax, clarinet and violin. Particular highlights include "When You Fall" and "Everything Will Be Fine." The former paints a portrait of a bad love "that's a pity and a shame," while the latter follows with the hope of a brighter day. "Everything" reminds a listener that, yeah, things fall apart. But learn your lessons, pick up the pieces and move on. Ledford's straight-ahead vocals team with John Skrobiszewski's violin and Penn Farmer's mandolin to set a sunny mood that winds this project toward its end with affirmation and release. Clocking in at a brief but thoroughly enjoyable 30 minutes, "reckless wheels" leaves you wanting more. Help the band celebrate the release of the CD on Saturday, July 8, at 7 p.m. at The Firehouse Theater, 1609 W. Broad St.

— Ames Arnold

Jars of Clay, "If I Left the Zoo," (Essential) — Like other bands that exist mainly to carry a message about the relationship between Man and a Higher Being, these guys can wear a little thin after awhile. But, that said, the Jars appeal to me far more than other Christian rockers because the band has a way with arrangements and melody, and it gets its message across without heavy-handed preaching. As a result, "Zoo" is a gorgeous little pop CD. Singer Dan Haseltine may wear his heart on his sleeve too much, but he has a soaring voice that conveys the group's songs of loss and supplication with an appealing innocence. The remaining band members layer on sounds and backing vocals that make each of the 11 tunes an aural pleasure. Ably produced by Dennis Herring and recorded in Oxford, Miss., and Nashville, this group's third CD reveals a band with talent and much to say about life's mysteries. Whether the message strikes home or not, there's no doubt these guys take a positive and honest approach to life and music that's too often in short supply. Jars of Clay performs Thursday, July 6, at Kings Island Amphitheater at Kings Dominion.

— A.A.

Dynamite Hack, "Superfast," (Universal Records) — "Boyz 'N The Hood," the first single from Dynamite Hack's major-label debut is not just an old N.W.A. cover, it's a song that these suburbanites from Austin, Texas, should never have tackled. Their version, played as a ballad, is one of the stupidest songs I've heard all year and it sours the whole album. What they are trying to accomplish with this mix of rap and nerd rock has been done before — and better — by bands such as the corny Bloodhound Gang and the Beastie Boys. When these collegians try it, it ends up sounding like LFO. I'm certain that Dynamite Hack's "Boyz 'N The Hood" will be a hit among teeny-boppers and in heavy rotation on MTV's Total Request Live. I just don't see how this song became "the No. 1 most requested track on modern rock radio" unless it's because of the song's obvious attempt at comic relief.

The band's music is all over the map. Bubble-gum punk, pseudo-rap, and watered-down "alternative" rock are all present. Dynamite Hack seems to be more in its element, and I think at its best, when it sticks to pop punk. Some of the catchy numbers the band manages to pull-off are "Anyway," "Dear Kate" and "Wussypuff." Dynamite Hack sounds similar to the band Jawbreaker and in the song "Pick Up Lines" it even quotes them. If it had stuck to one genre this might have been a decent release.

— Angelo DeFranzo

Ween, "White Pepper," (Elektra) - Ween writing love songs? It's true. "Stay Forever" and "She's Your Baby" are as sincere as their titles sound.

Maybe this is Ween's grown-up record. The opening, "Exactly Where I'm At," and the two straight-ahead pop songs that follow will have you tapping your foot, waiting for the elbow in the ribs that doesn't come.

Meanwhile, the one piece of broad slapstick on "White Pepper" — "Bananas and Blow" — falls flatter than the Caribbean-flavored Jimmy Buffett tunes it's meant to parody.

But there's still plenty of good foolin' around. "Stroker Ace" is four-on-the-floor, monstrous rock. "Pandy Fackler," which could pass as a Steely Dan outtake, features the cool pedal steel of Stu Basore, who first boarded the Ween mothership on "12 Golden Country Greats."

Then there's the warbling "Ice Castles," which is so intentionally treacly that at high volume it sounds pretty cool.

Though it doesn't match the mad genius of 1994's "Chocolate and Cheese," "Pepper" is nothing to sneeze at.

— Dave Renard, The Virginian-Pilot

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