The band's recent self-released, self-titled CD has all the bells and whistles that rock stations love to add to playlists. "Blame," the opener, starts with ominous atonal reverb before swirling into thick, glossy guitars and lead vocalist Eric Martin's heartfelt dissection of--you guessed it--a failed relationship. "Marilyn Manson's Children," a funk-rocker about lost and impressionable kids ("She's an angry child searching for a king, she says Marilyn Manson loves her soul/She's got black on her eyes, and you don't ask why, she wants what's mine...") has all the culture references and sonic hooks it can pack into its ethical little body. So gangway, credibility and dues-paying be damned. Word has it they've even got a demo deal with MCA. Then again, that is the home of the Nixons.

--C.R.

Brian Houser
Nominated for: Country and Western
Suddenly, Brian Houser is everyone's Next Big Thang, hailed as the latest country-music savior even before his debut Never Look Back hits stores, which might happen in July. Maybe it's a case of jumping on the bandwagon before it leaves the station. Maybe country's in such dire need of repair that any 39-year-old Denton boy (by way of St. Louis) with an aw-shucks delivery, a little sharp wit, and good taste in covers makes for a decent messiah in these desperate times. (If local boy Ty Herndon's allowed to have a major-label career, then Houser ought to be appointed head of the Country Music Academy.) Houser--a Six Flags roller-coaster carpenter by day, Adair's journeyman by night--isn't a bad horse to bet on. He's got the kind of voice that makes a programming director get a little wet, a backup band that plays outlaw country like parolees and keeps the beat on a tight leash, and a pocketful of songs that will play to the purists and the revisionists. Indeed, the roster of musicians on Never Look Back reads more like the 1989 Deep Ellum outfield: Mitch Marine (formerly of Tripping Daisy and Brave Combo) on bass, Chris Claridy (ex-Fever in the Funkhouse, currently with Jack Ingram) on guitar, the Combo's Jeffrey Barnes on sax, and Sara Hickman on vocals.

"The Dog is Mine" is the should-be single, the kind of song that'll get the good ol' boys hollering and make their wimminfolk stare: "I got a message for the man who's screwing my wife," he begins, "I wanna thank you for takin' her out of my life." It's the stuff of which great country's made, a song about a dog that's really all about, well, pussy. The record swings with slide and organ and a little lifted twang, and it's better than most everything that comes out of Nashville; then again, so's anything that comes out of Cleveland. Houser's got a legit shot at something bigger than Adair's, if that's what he wants, but a word of caution: Houser ain't no overgrown 14-year-old girl from Garland, and today's overnight sensation is far too often tomorrow's carpenter once more. No one ever became a star before they released their record.

--R.W.

Jack Ingram
Nominated for: Country & Western
Jack Ingram began his musical life playing the local frat-house and coffeehouse circuit; strangers stumbling into his shows likely figured him for a folkie--Lord knows I did, and not a very good one at that--one of those guys who strums his acoustic guitar by candlelight because it makes the young girls moist with affection. He came off so sensitive, you just wanted to beat the crap out of him, and it didn't help matters that he kept releasing his little records on Rhythmic Records, the label owned by Jackopierce; sharing the profits with Garfunkel and Garfunkel renders you guilty by association. But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming the John Denver of fraternity row: Jack Ingram rounded himself up an assortment of top-notch Dallas club rockers (including Chris Claridy and Pete Coatney), fell in with Steve Earle, washed the folk right off his face, and did right by country after all.

Ingram's 1997 disc Livin' or Dyin'--his first album on a major label and the first to hold together from start to finish after a live disc and a few other indie excursions--exists in the flatlands separating the literate postgraduate country of Lyle Lovett and the broken-glass honky-tonk of coproducer Earle; it reeks of enough smoke to make you believe Ingram paid his dues in the clubs (and he did), but it doesn't roll around in the dust just to pretend it's a little dirty. Ingram's actually an intriguing case study when it comes to the modern-day country artist: the post-hat act who comes to country through rock and roll, the guy who rides into town in a beat-up pickup truck he bought last week. Ingram's a literate sort who favors Guy Clark and Jimmie Dale Gilmore covers ("Rita Ballou" and "Dallas," respectively), but their presence on the record only shows up Ingram's own shortcomings as a would-be poet (the guy actually gets "teardrops in my eyes," a phrase disallowed by the Country Music Association since 1964).

He tries to exist as both revivalist (he covers the 45-year-old gem "Dim Light, Thick Smoke [and Loud, Loud Music]" with barroom fervor) and revisionist (the opener "Nothin' Wrong with That" is a note-for-note carbon of Earle's own rip-roaring "I Ain't Ever Satisfied"); but it comes off like Lyle Lovett covering Tom T. Hall with Jerry Jeff Walker singing backup, which isn't as frightening as you'd think--indeed, it's a damned good time. Which is, perhaps, the point: Ingram chose Earle--a guy who started in the bars and ended up behind them--as a musical role model (hope it ends there) because they're both Texans infatuated with tradition but not too afraid to break free from those shackles. The trick now is to see whether Ingram delivers on his promise or takes Earle up on his threat, which, in the end, might actually do the boy a world of good.

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