The Kennedys
Koch Records

An appealing crossroads of Byrdsy chime and heartland rock, John Cougar Mellencamp-style, with bright, clear female vocals. This Austin, Texas, duo venerates all things twangy, spinning 45 years of front-and-center guitar pop into effortless candy floss. After meeting in an Austin club, they celebrated their first date by driving 500 miles from different directions (Pete Kennedy was playing lead guitar for Nanci Griffith at the time and had a gig in Telluride) to meet at Buddy Holly’s grave in Lubbock. Talk about a good story for the grandkids.

And no surprise that the Kennedys have been steadily recruiting new fans from both singer-songwriter addicts and the guitar-pop camp. Stand’s gentler waves like “Raindrop” and the title track are right up there with anything coming out of coffeehouses in Nashville, Memphis, Austin or anywhere else, while lighthearted, upbeat numbers like “Dharma Café” are enough to satisfy any fan of corn-fed, good-time, ain’t-that-America rock. Maura Kennedy’s voice is so easy on the ears—clear and unadorned, just breathy enough, vibrato-less and mercifully free of affectation and the syrupy melisma of your average yowling, barefoot Top 40 contessa.

But hold on to that Diet Tab, adult-contemporary bloc voter: Live, the Kennedys are known to dish out some seriously blister-raising guitar jams to pry you out of your safe-rock happy place. You buy the ticket, you take the whole ride. (Andy Smetanka)

The Kennedys play the Crystal Theater on Sunday, May 9, at 8 PM. Tickets are $10/$12, available at Rockin Rudy’s.

A.K.A. Sting-Fu
Dig Records

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying non-Jamaicans shouldn’t play reggae music. But sooner or later you either have to quit laying back and just go for it with the patois, or come up with a steez of your own. You can’t use “them” in place of “dem” in the nominative case, as in “them have to left him fee dead,” a line from “Shark Posse” on Stingshark’s Sting-Fu. Sorry, you just can’t.

I say this at considerable personal risk, too, having been warned in the same song that “messing around” with Stingshark might get me slit up a treat by the selfsame Shark Posse. Luckily, it’s my only bone of contention with Stingshark (and, hopefully, with their scary Shark Posse). Well, that and the fact that Sting-Fu is so criminally underproduced in all the wrong places, reducing what should have been a might Anthrax-meets-Public Enemy guitar crunch on “Devious” and several other tracks to the underwhelming sound of Peavey Rage turned up halfway and smothered under a mattress for good measure.

Uh oh, that last bit might be construed as more messing. But the timid production makes for just a few patches of dry rot on an otherwise fun and funky album that rams together dancehall reggae, hip-hop, soul, and what-have-you into something sure to please live. Hey, not in the face! Please! Not in the face! (Andy Smetanka)

Stingshark play the Wolf’s Den in Polson on Friday, May 7, and the Top Hat on Saturday, May 8. Cover for the Top Hat show is $3.

David Byrne
Grown Backwards
Nonesuch Records

Musically, a bittersweet symphonic joyride; lyrically, a mystery.

Since his Talking Heads days, David Byrne has sung in code. What Byrne songs are “about” is intensely malleable from one individual to another. My girlfriend and I once embarked on a (still unresolved) debate as to whether the Byrne song “Smile” was ultimately happy or sad. On his latest solo project, Grown Backwards, the code becomes more dense than ever. If one takes Byrne’s politics into account, then a line in the song “Empire” such as “Young artists and writers/Please heed the call/What’s good for business/Is good for us all” would indicate obvious sarcasm. But the rest of the song doesn’t support the sarcasm, and so Byrne leaves it up to the listener to decipher his (in)sincerity on a line-by-line basis. It’s actual mental work, and the listener’s willingness to delve in will determine that listener’s enjoyment; you get what you give here. Byrne closes the album with “Lazy,” and many albums allow us to be so—not this one. With this in mind, Grown Backwards may reveal more about its audience than its composer. The CD packaging itself hints at this, as the metallic silver provides a mirror’s reflection, superimposing the listener’s face over Byrne’s. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Scorpio Rising
Locomotive Music

Holy smokes, are these guys really still around? Back in 1990, right after Metallica announced their new progressive/symphonic intentions with …And Justice for All, Prong’s Beg to Differ was just what the doctor ordered for Metallica fans who felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them. Stripped-down, hungry and harshly nihilistic, it was the perfect antidote to Metallica’s post-Master of Puppets bloat and sprawl. Plus there was that intriguing cover of “Third from the Sun,” originally written by sun-staring acid casualties Chrome.

Alas, the intervening 14 years have produced more grunting nü-metal epigones than anyone could have guessed at the time. The glut has somewhat tarnished Prong’s legacy as real innovators—there are simply too many bands that sound like them. Still, Scorpio Rising sounds just like vintage Prong, complete with bruising downtuned riffs, squealing harmonics, and Tommy Victor’s once-distinctive drill sergeant vocals still barking out lyrics that strongly suggest there’s no meaning. In anything. Ever. But will anyone care in the bleak post-Prong landscape of Drowning Pool and their accursed ilk? Lyrics from Beg to Differ’s “Steady Decline” come to mind—not to describe any diminished power, only Prong’s diminishing fortunes. (Andy Smetanka)

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