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The Grascals

The Grascals ignited the bluegrass world last year with a debut disc (``The Grascals") that earned a Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album. And if you caught the ``Hillbilly at Harvard" show the last two Saturdays on WHRB (95.3), you heard the DJs rhapsodize about the Grascals as though they were the second coming of Bill Monroe. The hype machine is at full throttle, but the Grascals justify every scrap of it. They are astonishing instrumentalists (several members used to back the Osborne Brothers). They feature two outrageously skilled lead singers (Terry Eldredge and Jamie Johnson) , and they already command enough respect to entice such guests as George Jones, Dierks Bentley , the Jordanaires , and Steve Wariner into the studio this time. Jones adds a moving recitation to ``Don't Tell Mama," an epic whiskey-disaster song that has the feel of Roy Acuff's ``Wreck on the Highway." Bentley pops up with a vocal harmony on the churning ``Being Me," about how ``mama loved the Bible, daddy loved the bars." The Jordanaires -- studio legends from the days when they backed Elvis Presley -- affix sweet gospel harmonies to ``Did You Forget God Today." And Wariner just plain smokes with acoustic picking on a song he wrote, ``Hoedown in Motown." The guests are special, but the Grascals, even without the help, are a must-listen for fans who like their bluegrass delivered with some country grit. They only write a couple of the tracks, but what jumps out is their deft and dazzling arrangements of such tunes as the Bill Monroe- Lester Flatt tune ``Will You Be Loving Another Man" and Merle Haggard's country ballad ``You Don't Have Very Far to Go." Everything sits comfortably on the same record, united in a way that suggests the Grascals have an even brighter future ahead.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: ``Don't Tell Mama"

Paris Hilton
Warner Bros./Heiress
If the burbling disco grooves of ``Not Leaving Without You" came booming over the sound system at Avalon on a Sunday night and the revelers didn't know who the cooing female vocalist was, most people would continue to kick up their heels without interruption. It is a song that Britney Spears would likely sell her husband for and that Giorgio Moroder , Kylie Minogue, or even Madonna would gladly call their own. In fact, the only reason a listener might not legitimately dig the song or others on the record from which it springs would be if they weren't fans of feel-good dance music. Of course, they might have a whole new set of issues upon discovering that the singer is Paris Hilton. While there's no sympathy for the ``Simple Life" star at this address, it would be churlish to pan Hilton's debut on the basis of her obnoxious celebutante persona. With the help of an army of hired hands -- chiefly hot hip-hop soul producer Scott Storch and melody-kissed songwriter to the starlets Kara DioGuardi -- Hilton has whipped up an album of souffle-light and wholly agreeable club- and power-pop that falls somewhere between ' 80 s footnote Stacey Q and the newly horny Nelly Furtado. (It also owes debts to Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson, and Blondie.) To be sure, Hilton isn't going to win any awards for originality -- or singing contests -- anytime soon, and the album has its share of duds. In a blind taste test only the keenest tweener ear would be able to distinguish the generic synth pop number ``Nothing Without You" from anything by Hilary Duff. And an unimaginative cover of Rod Stewart's ``Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" takes the whole ``I'm hot" shtick to new levels of overkill. But give the heiress credit for picking the right handlers and knowing when to quit while she's ahead. At under 45 minutes, ``Paris" goes by quicker than the time it probably takes to check into the Paris Hilton.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: ``Not Leaving Without You"

White Swan
Eccodek, the electronica project of Canadian producer Andrew McPherson, has won acclaim north of the border but, until now, had yet to see a US release. Titled as a respectful reply to a Brian Eno quip about the soullessness of computers, ``More Africa in Us" layers sampled vocals by two singers -- one Rwandan, the other Malian -- over chilled-out keyboards, noodling guitars , and mainly down - tempo beats. With lavish and proficient use of dub technology, this is a highly listenable atmospheric record, but the 10 tracks fail to assume separate identities, let alone leave an enduring effect. Just what is ``African" here is not clear; the disembodied vocals function for effect, not meaning, and the overall sound drifts dangerously close to global coffee-shop pap. In fairness, this album came out in Canada three years ago; its 2005 successor, ``Voices Have Eyes," features more accomplished vocal guests and allows them more creative input. Pending that album's US release, slated for next year, ``More Africa in Us" serves as a taste of McPherson's undeniable talents as a sonic architect, but also as a reminder that merely name-checking Africa does not in itself confer soulfulness, let alone edge.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: ``Bodhichitta Dub"

Black Fiction
Howells Transmitter
If you're going to use the words ``freak folk," this would be a good time. Black Fiction's "Ghost Ride" is a homemade patchwork of traditional acoustic instrumentation, atmospheric noise, drum-machine dubs, and R&B swatches to satisfy freaks and reward those more adventurous folks. Collaborators Tim Cohen and Evan Martin start with simple melodies and first-grade beats, but their darkly comic lyrics, chaotic arrangements, and touches of San Francisco psychedelia quickly mash everything into thrilling dementia. ``There Is a Light" shifts neatly from spacey '60s throwback to something akin to techno. ``Magic Hands" starts as token indie-love schmaltz but soon erupts into a frenzy of tambourine, clapping, breathing, and backward fiddle melodies. The pranks and plot twists keep coming as the lyrics start to be kind of haunting. The ``good lovin' man" whose falsetto boasts power on ``I Spread the Disease" is at once a parody of R&B smooth talkers and too genuine for his own irony. The singer in the title track searches for his dead love because he ``didn't get it quite right the first time." For all its high jinks, the album's skill and obsession with mortality give it a weird gravity. ``Carry Him Away," with its lyrical repetitions, banjo, and harmonica could pass for an ancient dirge if it weren't for its electronic undercurrent, and the opening ``Great Mystery" meditates on messy survival: ``Hunters in the woods will kill every single deer/ We will cram them in our stomachs and embody their fear/ We will hang them on our walls to show that death is near/ We will store them in our freezer for the next 20 years." ``Ghost Ride" borrows a maudlin sense of humor from classic blues and folk that makes things more interesting than they first appear.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: ``Great Mystery"
SAMPLE BLACK FICTION Check out audio clips at .

Gin Blossoms
If the Gin Blossoms circa 2006 are a nostalgia act trying to cling to their glory days, they're doing everything they should be doing in exactly the right way, short of making a new album that shows any evidence of genuine inspiration. ``Major Lodge Victory" takes the formula that made them that most curious of oxymorons -- multiplatinum power-poppers -- and picks up exactly where they left off. Without sounding tired or desperate, the Gin Blossoms sound nearly identical to the band they were a decade ago, mining the same guitar-pop ore as Fountains of Wayne but with more jangle and less smirk. There's nothing on ``Major Lodge Victory" that carries a hook as sharp as the ones that fuel ed ``Hey Jealousy" or ``Allison Road" (though the chorus of ``Heart Shaped Locket" and the ``ah-ah-ah" intro of ``Fool for the Taking" don't take it lying down), but you could drop either one right into the track listing without skipping a beat. In a way, that refusal to change is both the band's greatest liability and its saving grace. ``Major Lodge Victory" isn't going to change the world, but the Gin Blossoms never were.
ESSENTIAL TRACK: ``Fool for the Taking"

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