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SOUND BITES

Pop albums

Neil Young: Unplugged _ Reprise

Young unwittingly invented the Unplugged series in 1979, when he played equally stirring electric and acoustic versions of the same song on his Rust Never Sleeps album. Now he brings some of his classics into similar contrast, offering stripped-down versions of the Buffalo Springfield nugget Mr. Soul, CSNY's Helpless and Like a Hurricane, rearranged into a haunting, organ-accompanied soliloquy. If these new performances remind us how well Young's music has stood the test of time, then the three selections from the recent Harvest Moon album included here prove that the artist's songwriting genius remains undiminished.

Pete Townshend: PsychoDerelict _ Atlantic

Culled in part from a sequel to the Who's Tommy that never materialized, Townshend's new oeuvre is a radio drama about an aging rocker, his manager and a journalist. The concept would have worked well enough as a series of thematically linked songs, but the artist takes it further into the realm of the concept album by loading it with dialog. These spoken tracks distract as much as they inform, nevertheless, some great songs can be heard above the din, most notably the album-rock single English Boy, Now and Then and the ballad I Am Afraid.

Paul Westerberg: 14 Songs Sire/Reprise

The ex-Replacement's first solo album has been eagerly awaited since Dyslexic Heart on the Singles soundtrack, and it's a great one. Numbers alternate between the raw-boned rock that made the 'Mats legendary among punk cognoscenti and the introspective, melodic tunes that have always represented the other side of Westerberg's writing personality. There isn't a weak track; dip into the lovely First Glimmer, the graceful Dice Behind Your Shades, the pounding World Class Fad and Silver Naked Ladies or the tremulous Even Here We Are.

X: Hey Zeus! _ Big Life/Mercury

The first studio album in six years by the pathfinding Los Angeles punk rock band is more focused and detailed sonically and largely eschews the wired tempos of early works, but still displays writing acumen, forceful playing and the spiky (and never better) vocal interplay of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Country at War is the tough-enough lead-off track; the insinuating Someone's Watching, Big Blue House and the caterwauling Clean Like Tomorrow should alert younger modern rockers to what these originals are all about.

Steve Miller Band: Wide River _ Polydor

Miller covers familiar territory on his first album for a new label after a quarter-century at Capitol. While devotees will find nothing wrong with the singer's unassuming vocals, lightweight new songs and forays into blues on Stranger Blues and All Your Love, there is nothing here to throw Miller back into the commercial mainstream. This is mainly for die-hard supporters who continue to make him a top concert draw.

John Sebastian: Tar Beach _ Shanachie

The first album in 17 years from the '60s folk-rock fave shows matured perspective from his days at the upbeat Lovin' Spoonful helm, but more serious lyrical fare hasn't dampened his melodic craftsmanship. Warm vocal abilities are equally intact on tunes like the clever ecology lesson Link in the Chain, the cynical social comment Bless 'Em All and the focus track You and Me Go Way Back. The playing is stellar, thanks to guests like NRBQ's Al Anderson and Terry Adams, Steve Khan, Steve Gadd and Jerry Marotta (not to mention Sebastian's own estimable guitar and harmonica work).

R&B album

Subject to Change: Womb Amnesia _ Capitol

The Los Angeles sextet leans toward the funk "n' roll end of the spectrum on its debut offering. Its strong suit is the vocal work of Cree Summer Francks, who impresses with her power and attitude. The weakest element is the material, which isn't sharp enough to sustain the album's attenuated running time. Still, the band is a hot one on stage.

_BPI

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