Luke Warm'z Reception, "Luke Warm'z Reception"; Eric Clapton, "Reptile"; Big Bill Morganfield, "Ramblin"; Pearl Jam, "8/3/00 — Virginia Beach, Virginia" 

Now Hear This

Action Figure Party, "Action Figure Party" (Blue Thumb Records) — Keyboardist, vocalist and session musician Greg Kurstin has a mission: to introduce the young punk and alternative-rock community to the world of jazz. So he put together an all-star lineup of alternative-rock musicians with jazz sensibilities. This results in 12 tracks that swirl soul, jazz, ambient and rock together, creating cutting-edge soundscapes and quirky compositions.

The project stars bassist Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sean Lennon (turntables), Incubus' Jose Pasillas (drums) and Cibo Matto vocalist Miho Hatori.

The "Party" also boasts trombonist Gabrial McNair (who plays keyboards for No Doubt), David Ralicke on trombone and sax (from Beck's band), Buckcherry's Yogi on guitar, and bassists Daniel Shulman (Garbage), Fima Ephron (Gil Scott-Heron) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre and Eminem).

Drummers Yuval Gabay (Soul Coughing), Gary Novak (Chick Corea, Alanis Morrissette), Brian Reitzell (from Air and Redd Kross), along with percussionist John Molo (Phil Lesh and Friends) keep watch on the beat.

The project shines during the funky organ/guitar conversation in "Where's The Moment?" and during Durstin's electric piano meanderings in "No Sleep." The instrumental tracks are fresh and experimental, but Kurstin's singsong vocals on the title track and "Clock Radio" undermine the album's integrity.

Luckily Kurstin stays away from the mic on the other 10 tracks, where he succeeds in delivering a textured, funky blend of jazz styles. — Carrie Nieman

Luke Warm'z Reception, "Luke Warm'z Reception" (Urine Spaceman Records) — On what other album can you find a lounge song ("Intro"), a poppy instrumental ("Sinnerjizm") and a Black Sabbath-meets-The Ramones barnstormer ("Muskrat Luv") back-to-back with no apologies?

Luke Warm'z Reception gets its name from guitarist Luke Warm (formally with Charlotte, N.C.'s, My So-Called Band). Surprisingly, this is truly a solo effort, bearing no resemblance to the work of his former band.

The more straightforward punk tracks like "Muskrat Luv" and "Your Future," along with the movie-sample-laced instrumentals "The Mechanics" and "LWR Theme Song" work best for me. A cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" stays relatively true to the original version. Even the weaker cuts benefit from a biting sense of sarcasm and dry wit. This is an interesting listen, indeed. — Angelo DeFranzo

Eric Clapton, "Reptile" (Reprise Records) — Play the title track from "Reptile" and it's easy to think you somehow received the wrong CD. The song is a jazzy, acoustic instrumental tune that sounds more like it belongs on a Windham Hill New Age record than on a CD from the man who helped define blues rock. And it isn't the only time Clapton offers a surprise. "Believe In Life" is another slick, jazz-based tune, albeit one that gets some much-needed backbone from its gospel overtones. In covering "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," Clapton serves up a taste of smooth soul. The catchy "Find Myself" even boasts a hint of ragtime in its deliberately strummed acoustic-guitar riffs and piano.

Fortunately, much of the rest of "Reptile" sounds more like the music one would expect from Clapton. "Second Nature" merges gritty acoustic blues with poppy melody — a Clapton trademark for much of the past two decades.

The songs are well-crafted and Clapton's singing is particularly impassioned, but the same can't be said for the production. The overall sound of the CD has an adult-contemporary slickness. The playing likewise is a bit too precise and controlled. A looser approach might have breathed more life into what is otherwise a solid, diverse and somewhat surprising effort from this rock legend. — Alan Sculley

Big Bill Morganfield, "Ramblin'" (Blind Pig) — This collection never really catches fire. There are plenty of pleasing musical moments, some fine slide playing and some nice guest shots by notable players. But, overall, Morganfield's project never engages. "Mellow Chick Swing" gets things off on a fine foot with Big Bill's deep and warm vocals, and there's plenty of sting when he's joined by Taj Mahal on "Strong Man Holler." But eventually, the tunes start to blend into each other, despite the strong harp of Bill Lupkin, Billy Branch and Paul Oscher, and plenty of great piano blues riffing. The problem with "Ramblin'" may arise from the song selection. Nine of the 14 songs are self-penned by Morganfield, and while the tunes are solidly rooted in a blues tradition, there's nothing memorable about them. Big Bill plays a fine slide and he has a good voice, but somehow this recording doesn't click. — Ames Arnold

Pearl Jam, "8/3/00 — Virginia Beach, Virginia" (Sony/Epic) — Ten years after "Ten," Pearl Jam's smash debut album, it's fair to question just how vital a force the band is on the rock scene. But say this for Pearl Jam: They look out for their fans. That's part of the motivation behind the recent release of 23 live, double CDs, all recordings from last summer's U.S. tour. It's the follow-up to last year's flood of 25 live discs from the European shows.

Why the deluge? To thwart bootleggers, the band says, giving fans access to higher-quality live recordings at reasonable prices (check www.pearljam.com for discounts).

The first installment is "8/3/00 — Virginia Beach, Virginia," a start-to-finish document of Pearl Jam's U.S. tour kickoff at GTE Amphitheater. At 26 songs (roughly two hours of music), it's a good value and will keep die-hards happy.

Razor-sharp sound reproduction toughens up good songs like "Better Man," "MFC" and "Corduroy." There are eight offerings from PJ's most recent studio release, "Binaural," and more obscure treats such as "Yellow Ledbetter."

Fanatics are advised to scrutinize set lists from other live discs to find the juiciest nuggets. Covers of "Baba O'Riley" and "Rockin' in the Free World," for example, are available, but not on "8/3/00." — Bob Warburton, Landmark News Service

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