Where the Action Isn’t

Return of Saturn (Interscope)
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Gwen Stefani is forced to battle the perception that she's shallow because shallow is what she is. Like any human being, she has real feelings, but they run about as deep as her hair color and her commitment to ska, and wasn't it polite of me not to bring up her gift for the pithy phrase and the catchy tune? Occasionally her pushing-30 doubts about the single life are touching, like when she imagines Gavin Rossdale would make a good dad. But after five years, two producers, one Spin cover, and one lead review in Rolling Stone, the single Interscope sent her back to the salt mines for is the best thing on her automatic-platinum follow-up. So maybe marriage wouldn't be such a bad idea. No no no, not to Gavin—better she should land a really nice accountant. They have feelings too. C PLUS

Southern Evil (Gray Boy)
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Right, I didn't spell their name right—that would be aiding and abetting these been-and-gone scumbags, whose slogan is "Why wear one if you are one?" That the term they prefer is "dirtbag" says everything we need know about how creamy they cum. I hope the repo man is already on whatever dumb shit they bought with their Kid Rock-wannabe, David Allan Coe-nephew, ooh-now-I'm-really-impressed advance, which I also hope cost some a&r fool his job. Another slogan: "Abuse chicks, smell like hell, and drink Mad Dog." Yet another: "Give this record a spin and don't take it too seriously." Oh, I get it—they were Only Joking. D PLUS

The Better Life (Republic)
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Those who whine that there are no new rock bands are too square to know where to find them—on commercial radio, they're as hot as teenpop right now. But although many of those that surface come complete with a winner like the sad-versed, jaunty-chorused "Kryptonite," a sure shot for the Y2K'd and Confused remake Steve Case's boy will bankroll in 2020, good new rock bands are admittedly hard to come by. Avoiding the rest of this triple-platinum Mississippi swamp-rock is what Napster is for. "Album track" my ass. Burn yourself a "Kryptonite" now. C PLUS

Music @ Work (Sire)
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Blame Canada, which gulls citizens into subsidizing local culture with the lure of universal health care. Fifteen years on, that northern nation's favorite rock band—led by deep thinker Gordon Downie, who ungratefully notes, "If I do believe in a country, it's the country of me"—has progressed from a passable "blues-based" literacy (imbued with the natural sense of rhythm for which Canadians are renowned, of course) to candidly ornate and obscure art-rock. "Why haven't The Hip sold millions in the States?" demands one loyal fan. His first hypothesis: "Lyrics don't translate into ebonics." So let's set Big Daddy Kane on this quatrain: "I loaded the variables like masterpieces from under the germ-led advance/I saw your compass on a sea of frayed cable and aspects of vision afloat/in a glance/and outside the train overnight floodlights on the inexorable sights." C

The Man Who (Columbia)
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You don't have to be an 'N Sync fan to prefer a world in which the young and the gormless swallow a song called "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" to one in which their pablum of choice is a little something entitled "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" But are there really adults who find sustenance in folk-pop that blurs all distinctions between the lyrical and the moony? Of course. Have been since Donovan. B MINUS

Breach (Interscope)
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Don't envy Jakob Dylan his dilemma, but don't underestimate his privilege. He's no Julian Lennon, but he's also no Rufus Wainwright, and though he comes up with strong melodies, he's hardly a match for Ben Folds or Elliott Smith, both of whom frame their catchy stuff more idiosyncratically and neither of whom is terribly interesting even so. Dylan's lyrics competently explore the metaphor-laden broken-narrative mode his father invented and loosed on the world, just as his band concept does the flat-bottomed strophic folk-rock his father ditto. Nothing in his singing, his wordplay, or—a few lucky strikes aside—his tunecraft will tempt anyone who isn't stuck on his dad to parse those lyrics, to care what they mean. So he should praise the Lord for his cheekbones, which come from his mom. B MINUS

Silver and Gold (Reprise)
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Previously, Young's bad records have always had the mark of weirdness on them—impossible songs, twisted politics, stupid clothes. These 10 well-culled copyrights, two from the '80s and only four from 2000, are something new and ominous, because they're dull. They smell of equine methane: the old-fart hegemony that fuels alt-country, AC radio, and literary anthologies canonizing Ry Cooder, Ernie K-Doe, and Spooner Oldham. So though Duck Dunn and Jim Keltner get more beats going than Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina ever will, their mild funk is just another species of roots politesse, and Neil's self-indulgently halting vocals open the dismaying possibility that he takes Will Oldham seriously. True love isn't this boring, Young must know that. Hell, the Buffalo Springfield weren't this boring either. But they are now. C PLUS

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