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Soulfarm "Scream of the Crop"; Maxwell "Now"; Sparklehorse "It's a Wonderful Life"; The Derailers, "Here Come the Derailers,"; Buzby "Break The Silence"

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Soulfarm "Scream of the Crop" (Desert Rock Records)

Formerly known as Inasense, the New York trio Soulfarm released "Scream of the Crop" as the first studio release under its new moniker. Guitarists C. Lanzbom and Noah Solomon Chase, and drummer Mark Ambrosino, went with the name switch to cement their metamorphosis from jam-oriented songwriting to song-oriented songwriting. While I am not familiar with their previous efforts, the artists formerly known as Inasense fall flat on "Scream."

The album starts off strong enough with a Latin-flavored acoustic guitar and conga-driven upbeat number called "The Ride," evoking images of your average Gypsy Kings song. Unfortunately, the album loses steam over the next seven remarkably similar songs. It's further bogged down by lyrically unimpressive ballads such as "Sweet Smile": "When I listen to you/My heart cries/Your voice is true/You're so wise." Some hope is salvaged toward the end of the 15-track disc, with the Middle-Eastern-tinged, rollicking "Ain't We All," and the lyrically clever "I Don't Mind," both of which serve to re-grab your attention and showcase the guitar talents of Lanzbom and Chase, which never shine earlier in the album. "From This Day On" features former Jane's Addiction/Porno for Pyros frontman Perry Ferrell on vocals, furthering our escape from the acoustic quagmire of the first half of the album and illustrating the diversity Soulfarm is capable of. It's just too bad they don't show us more. — Ford Gunter

Maxwell "Now" (Columbia Records)

Maxwell set an imposing standard for himself in 1996 when his debut CD, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," helped take the classic soul of the 1960s and place it in a modern '90s R&B context.

A concept record that explored a single love affair, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" was an auspicious start. And when his second CD, 1998's "Embrya," showed that his debut was no fluke, Maxwell created even bigger expectations for his future.

Maxwell's long-awaited third studio CD, "Now," by and large delivers on those expectations. This time out, Maxwell sets aside the grand concepts of his previous work, but his music remains as ambitious and well crafted as ever.

The CD's 11 songs touch on a wide range of soul-based styles. "No One" finds Maxwell settling into a smart fusion of funk and soul that recalls Prince at his best. The spirit of Prince also seeps into "Temporary Nite," a punchy tune that deftly blends edgy guitar and soulful falsetto harmonies.

On "Now/At The Party," the reference turns more toward "Shaft"-style Curtis Mayfield, and Sly and the Family Stone, as Maxwell grooves his way through this deliciously funky track. A far more modern take on horn-spiced soul emerges on "Got To Know Ya," whose percolating bass line and rhythms have an entirely contemporary feel.

On "For Lovers Only" and "Silently," the balladeer in Maxwell steps to the fore, as he applies his silky smooth voice to lush, meditative melodies. "Now" may not set trends the way "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" did; its songs are too deeply rooted in familiar forms. But the music is strong enough and Maxwell's performances so assured that "Now" should easily affirm his place as one of the most gifted members of today's generation of modern soul men.

Alan Sculley

Sparklehorse "It's a Wonderful Life" (Capitol)

By the time this new CD hit the shelves you might have had your fill of reading about it. Critics have always given Virginia songwriter Mark Linkous a lot more attention than he might ever get from the public. But maybe that will change, since Linkous presents a much more straightforward album this time around.

The cover shows a detail of an old black-and-white photograph of a suitor holding his bouquet of Technicolor roses. The best parts of this album have that romantic timelessness about them when Linkous pulls a traditional arrangement out of the attic, barely blows the dust from it and applies a coat of static and reverb. Take "It's a Wonderful Life," the scratchy, waltzlike title track. Backing his whispering vocals, a guitar lightly pulses in three-quarter time, what sounds like a child's xylophone provides a minimalist melody, and odd computer-generated noises appear and vanish like lightning bugs and other insects during a summer evening. For most of the album Linkous sticks closely to that drowsy mood, where dreams flitter between the past and the future, between gravelly old recordings and clear digital outbursts.

Occasionally he loses focus. "Piano Fire" and "King of Nails" are two doses of Linkous-style indie rock (with PJ Harvey and The Cardigans' Nina Persson, the latter making a few appearances on the album). This kind of music would be fine anywhere else, but sounds out of place and pandering on this album. Tom Waits loaned his voice to the self-indulgent "Dog Door," which surprisingly, he didn't write.

But those are just minor complaints when the album is taken as a whole. Linkous might have pruned some more here and there, but it's a wonderful record nonetheless. — Wayne Melton

The Derailers, "Here Come the Derailers," (Lucky Dog)

This Austin-based band's latest is full of the same great honky-tonk attitude that's made the group a touring favorite during the past few years. Twangy, tight and full of Buck Owens-Bakersfield soul, the 12 cuts rock with straight country heart. Led by longtime band mates and songwriters Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt, the band doesn't cross any new stylistic borders on the album, but the disc includes top-notch examples of the traditional country music the band is known for. If anything, the songs are better, the country groove is leaner and tougher, and the vocals sound more natural than in the past. For those who have fled love's failures in the company of Mr. Jim Beam, "Bar Exam" sets 'em up and knocks 'em back right. "I See My Baby" sounds like the Mavericks without the overkill, while the Farfisa organ and pedal steel showcase, "Country A Go-Go," changes the pace. "Mohair Sam" is a nice tip of the cowboy hat to the late Charlie Rich, and "I'd Follow You Anywhere" is a classic country weeper. With plenty of serious tunes and good-time songs in the set, the latest by the Derailers packs a powerful punch. — Ames Arnold

Buzby "Break The Silence" (Buzby)

Yes, I too have been steamrolled by Buzby's impressive promotional juggernaut. As one of the hardest-working local bands around, this Charlottesville-based group knows exactly how to spread the gospel of Buzby by using the media and adhering to a fingers-to-the-bone performance schedule. The new album opens with the aptly named first track, "Shattered." How perfect, an opening pun. However, it's the record's second song, "Tired Of Boo," that really jump-starts an effort that wafts between danceable college rock, forlorn ballads of love lost and stray political commentary. For this outing all of the familiar faces are here, keeping alive the chemistry that fueled the quality of the group's earlier demo efforts. A few of the songs, such as "Simple Romance" and "Bird" (a darn cute song might I add), I've already sampled from this album's precursors, and both fit nicely in the grand scheme of this release.

In no way am I trying to equate Buzby to the overused yardstick that is the DMB (dare I speak it), but I can say fans of each group can easily walk hand-in-hand after discussing their tastes in music. I'm still not quite sure how to truly label the group's music — jam, groove, college boogie rock, neo-jazz 'n' roll — oh, just listen to the album. It's mellow, it's cool, it's cuddling music for a good date. — Angelo DeFranzo

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