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Ani DiFranco's "Revelling/Reckoning"; Avail's "One Wrench"; Guided By Voices' "Isolation Drills"; Lloyd Cole's "The Negatives." 

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Ani DiFranco, "Revelling/Reckoning" (Righteous Babe) — This 2-CD, 29-track project is nothing short of massive in scope for a pop record. It doesn't always succeed and some excesses could have been trimmed, but it's also a project that reveals more as a listener goes deeper into it. It is recorded in two distinct halves that are dependent on one another, and the entirety of "Revelling/Reckoning" examines life's journey against both a light and dark backdrop of hope and anguish.

Though far from upbeat, "Revelling" is the cheerier of the two discs, but it is also the less successful of the two. In this first set, DiFranco shows us she can capture basic truths with deceptively simple turns of phrase as in "Tamburitza Lingua" and "Rock Paper Sissors." Some of the tunes have a spare folkie feel about them that nicely balances the light funk/jazz band cuts, and DiFranco plays respectable guitar. But too many of the tunes seem to meander. "Revelling" comes across as uneven and its reflective qualities are often lost. "Reckoning" is the more somber and focused of the two discs. DiFranco flirts with preaching a couple of times, but when she settles down in "Grey" and "School Night," she puts some real soul into her tunes and voice. As it is, "Revelling/Reckoning" is an impressive statement. Cutting some self-conscious experimentation would have made it exceptional.

— Ames Arnold



Avail, "One Wrench" (Fat Wreck Chords) — Few bands who call our fair city home have been able to worm their way into the national spotlight, but the Richmond-based (via Reston) punk group Avail seems to be bucking that trend. While Avail's record label may have changed for "One Wrench," the hard-hitting three-minute anthem formula found on its previous releases still remains intact. As the boys roar through the new album, I'm taken with their re-recorded version of "Taken" and leveled by... well, the song "Leveled." You can almost see all of the underage Avail fans writhing on the dance floor at Twisters while shouting lyrics to the song "Heron," but the mellower "High Lonesome" is probably more my speed these days.

The fury of Avail's musically pleasing and politically conscious songs will continue to whet the intellects of impressionable young fans, insuring that Avail will blaze a path for all Richmond bands well beyond 2001.

— Angelo DeFranzo



Guided By Voices, "Isolation Drills" (TVT Records) — Robert Pollard, the sole original member and driving force behind Guided By Voices, seems to possess an inexhaustible supply of catchy pop hooks. On "Isolation Drills," Pollard once again shows he is one of the most gifted songwriters in music.

The new CD is packed with 16 guitar-driven pop songs, and nearly every one is a winner. The CD is defined by tuneful rockers like "Chasing Heather Crazy," "Glad Girls" and "Pivotal Film." But "Isolation Drills" is not a one-dimensional effort. On songs like "Want One?" and "The Enemy," Pollard takes his guitar pop into more angular terrain. "Unspirited" displays a slightly spacier sound. "How's My Drinking?" meanders into a dreamier guitar-pop context. And where earlier Guided By Voices records were sometimes burdened by lo-fi production, "Isolation Drills" boasts a bright, full-bodied — but not too polished — sound.

Stylistically, "Isolation Drills" evokes the memory of a long line of first-rate guitar- pop bands — be it Big Star, the Soft Boys, or even the Kinks or Cheap Trick. In fact, song for song, few other CDs this year will match "Isolation Drills" for pure pop delights. That won't guarantee Guided By Voices radio play or better record sales, but it will keep Pollard lodged in his place as one of the leading figures on the indie rock scene.

— Alan Sculley



Lloyd Cole, "The Negatives" (March Records) — Since arriving on the music scene in the mid-1980s fronting his band, the Commotions, Lloyd Cole has carved out a place as one of music's most underappreciated pop songwriters. Commotions CDs such as "Rattlesnakes" (1984) and "Easy Pieces" (1985) earned well-deserved raves, but attracted only a cult following. Since going solo at the end of the 1980s, Cole has been a bit less consistent. His latest effort, "The Negatives," is a little disappointing, although it does boast a few pop gems.

"Past Imperfect" builds from a gentle opening into a nicely layered rocker. "Too Much E" is another song that rocks smartly behind some snaky guitar work. "Negative Attitude" gains some healthy momentum behind a punchy beat and bursts of guitar bluster, while "Man On the Verge" is a sweet-sounding midtempo song that gets a charge out of a well-constructed song-ending guitar solo.

But on too many occasions, Cole lets some wimpy tendencies drag down his songs. "Impossible Girl," "That Boy," "Tried To Rock" and "What's Wrong With This Picture?" all feature too much jangle and not enough backbone — a perfect recipe for limp-wristed pop.

For Cole loyalists there are enough good songs to justify adding "The Negatives" to the collection. But new fans would do better to choose one of Cole's past albums to sample the talents of this underrated singer-songwriter.

— A.S.

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