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Shannon Wright "Dyed in the Wool"; Wise Monkey Orchestra "Make Believe"; The Lucky Sperms "Somewhat Humorous" 

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Shannon Wright "Dyed in the Wool" (Quarterstick) HHHH

Shannon Wright's third album mixes mood, dissonant melodies and intense changes in tone for what can be comforting yet unsettling music. Her sound sometimes resembles a mix of PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, but she is definitely an artist in her own class. Wright has the skill of placing unsettling surprises in songs, like the old-time strings that emerge in "Method of Sleeping," the buildup of drums in "Bells," or the way her singing suddenly bursts with anger at the end of the title track.

Whether delicately playing guitar, passionately exploding onto a piano or singing in her piercing way, Wright grabs your attention. Her sometimes morbid lyrics are often hard to decipher, and even harder to wrap your mind around once you do understand. This is challenging music and Wright's sound will not appeal to everyone, but those who can sort through her layers of sound and meaning are definitely rewarded. — Lindsay Sterling

Wise Monkey Orchestra "Make Believe" (Lauan) HHHH

Endurance in the music industry is a novel concept. Success is fleeting. However, there are always exceptions to every rule, and to this, I offer Wise Monkey Orchestra. Through 10-plus years of constant touring, relocation, and the shuffling of some of the players, WMO has managed to keep its head above the turbulent waters, and now that the band has settled comfortably into the Southern California music scene, it appears it may have even found its niche.

Voted Best Dance and Funk Band at the 1999 San Diego Music Awards, WMO caught the attention of Lauan Records, which quickly signed the band and rereleased their short-lived 1998 album "Make Believe," a collection of 11 original tunes offering a plethora of funk, jazz, soul and Latin beats. "The Truth" leads the album off in fine form, harkening back to the days when James Brown was the "Godfather of Soul" for a reason. One of two instrumental tracks, "Jerry's Tune," is a raucous horn ride through the ghettos of 1970's Funkytown co-penned and graced on guitar by guest Jerry Demink. Trombone and flute man Andy Geib's horn charts shine on "The Other Side" with guest sax Robbie Helm rounding out a three-part brass barrage. As with almost every album in the history of music, some tracks are less interesting than others, but the highlights make Wise Monkey Orchestra a safe buy for music aficionados who crave more than what Casey Casem and the Top 40 have to offer. — Ford Gunter

The Lucky Sperms "Somewhat Humorous" (Jagjaguwar) H

I'm going to jump right off the title of this one and say that "Somewhat Humorous" is giving way too much credit to this material. I'm thinking that at this point more bad music from Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston can only attain the level of somewhat annoying.

These merry pranksters of folk are (after 20 years in the business for Fair) still trying to sell the same lo-fi schtick, known as "Look at me, I'm playing retarded music — isn't it cute and funny?" Not really. Not anymore. The jokes have just worn thin — their bad voices, songs about hamburgers and lyrics about cartoons — and the only people I can see being interested in this stuff are the two who made it and a few of their hardcore admirers, if in fact there are any.

Now, those people out there, if in fact they do exist, might protest this review, pointing out all the brave, experimental work Fair did in Half Japanese and other projects. Well, I've never really listened to that band, but even if its music is absolute gold that doesn't excuse 20, count 'em, 20 more songs with titles like "She Starts Fire," "Stale Spaghetti" and "Pancakes Flop."

Move along now, Mr. Fair and Mr. Johnston, because we're all getting somewhat bored. — Wayne Melton

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