Bad Religion
The Gray Race

In light of two decades of pithy punk sloganeering, in which the naked expression of rage is usually regarded as a viable substitute for well-reasoned logic, the eloquence of Greg Graffin has often been lauded as a much-needed voice of intelligence amid the rabbling mob. As co-founder of SoCal punk stalwarts Bad Religion (and, in his spare time, a Ph.D. candidate who's writing his dissertation on the evolution of vertebrates -- really!), Graffin has been credited with upping the genre's cerebral ante, offering a new standard by which to measure the rants of his less erudite peers.

The Gray Race, Bad Religion's first album since the departure of co-lyricist Brett Gurewitz, gives ample voice to Graffin's brain-bending tendencies -- perhaps a little too ample. Freed from the constraints of Gurewitz's earthier foil, Graffin flexes his formidable vocabulary. Unfortunately, this is an album, not the verbal section of the SATs, and Graffin proves himself to be far more clever with words than ideas. Would-be bons mots like "charity has a redolence chastity cannot rescind" (from "Spirit Shine") tickle the tongue nicely but ultimately ring hollow, no matter how earnestly Graffin delivers them.

Worse yet, by cloaking his populist message -- which, over 15 tracks, essentially boils down to "we're all tools of an increasingly dehumanizing society run by evil corporate conglomerates and an indifferent government, but if we'd just start thinking for ourselves and stand together against the oppression, we could free ourselves from the shackles of the modern world" -- in impenetrable professor-speak, Graffin unwittingly detaches himself from the ideology he's espousing. He may purport to speak for the people, but he's also putting words in their mouths. After chewing on the opening lines of "Them and Us" ("Despite that he saw blatant similarity/ He struggled to find a distinctive moiety"), one wishes Graffin would throw in a few well-placed "Oi!"s for emotional ballast, particularly when he renders himself marble-mouthed trying to cram his wordy missives into the loud, fast tempos that accompany them.

Which happens quite a bit on The Gray Race; perhaps in reaction to 1994's generally languid Stranger Than Fiction, Race leans hard on the musical idiom of old-school punk. And, to his credit, Graffin does make eventual strides to marry his message to its medium. As if he suddenly realized that it's difficult to maintain righteous anger when you have to consult your dictionary on every third measure, Graffin tones down the lingual fireworks for the latter half of the album, infusing "Drunk Sincerity" and "Cease" with a welcome directness.

If Graffin is as bright a guy as he's made out to be, he'll pick up on the lesson to be learned from these last three tracks: Namely, that an ounce of true communication is worth a pound of polysyllabic pabulum. OK, class dismissed.

-- Tim Kenneally

Steve Earle
I Feel Alright
(Warner Bros.)

On his way to deliver Hank Williams' unfinished message, Steve Earle got pulled over, and Garth Brooks zipped by with a police escort. A decade ago, Earle was expected to consummate arena rock's long-standing flirtation with hillbilly music; by now, his attempts at playing to the rafters are his least compelling. By contrast, the best moments on I Feel Alright occur when this Nashville fringe performer thumbs his nose at the prospect of a wider audience -- as he did throughout the bluegrass-colored Train a Comin', last year's low-key comeback following the artist's incarceration for possession of heroin. I Feel Alright is half-full of songs that recall the back-porch blues of the hill country and the anachronistic sound of the very earliest rock 'n' roll, two styles that Earle adopts with mastery.

While "Poor Boy" faintly echoes Buddy Holly, the nerdy open-throated backing vocals of "Valentine's Day" are a much more blatant tribute, this time to Elvis Presley's Jordanaires. "Valentine's Day" is also notable for its lachrymose string accompaniment, which works surprisingly well; if Earle could hit the notes, the thing might be a belated answer song to Linda Ronstadt's early career melodrama "Long, Long Time." Elsewhere, Earle's darker urges surface on a pair of outstanding tracks, "South Nashville Blues" and "CCKMP" ("Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain"). Despite its burdensome title, the latter is the album's centerpiece, effectively matching the harrowing acoustic blues of Robert Johnson with the brittle folk-drone of John Lennon's "Dear Prudence."

For the most part, though, Earle's "Hard-Core Troubadour" persona doesn't fare as well. And yet Earle's strength remains his ability to dignify the plight of the average fella, even as he's railing against it. On his boom-period album The Hard Way, Earle laid claim to Jack Kerouac's legacy of irresponsibility while also making an anthem of "(I'm Just a) Regular Guy." His best musical instincts may never win him an indiscriminate audience, but Earle's lyrics continue to resonate for the fictive American Everyman.

Steve Earle plays Sun, March 31, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.
-- James Sullivan

in on the yolk

"I wrote this song in just 10 minutes flat/ I lost the words/ I don't know where they're at" opens "Uh Uh Oh," an embarrassingly contagious ditty (named for its somewhat Billy Idol-inspired chorus) about, you guessed it, a vapid musician. "Bubblepunk," the following song, could be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy if it were not for the fact that the Vancouver trio is clearly aware that they are already a parody of themselves and, indeed, in on the yolk. Yes, they dress like eggs, but don't let that faze you.

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