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SOUND BITES

Aerosmith, Nine Lives, Columbia _ The record that Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler called "the most gut-wrenching" the band ever has made is also among its most inspired, most impassioned, and most impeccably executed. From the opening squeal of the title track to the horn-spiked intro to irresistible lead single, Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees), from the exotic touches of Taste Of India to knockout power ballad Hole In My Soul, the album never lets up in intensity. Other highlights include The Farm, Kiss Your Past Goodbye, and the touching Fallen Angels.

John Lee Hooker, Don't Look Back, Pointblank/Virgin _ The consummation of a long-planned collaboration between blues great John Lee Hooker and his friend Van Morrison, this album features new Hooker originals, Morrison's The Healing Game, and covers of Freddie Williams' I Love You Honey and Jimi Hendrix's Red House _ all performed with style and grace by Hooker and such great support players as Los Lobos, Charles Brown and Morrison. A meeting of two kindred musical spirits that should appeal to blues, triple-A, roots music and college outlets, as well as to the individual artists' longtime fans.

Morphine, Like Swimming, DreamWorks/Rykodisc _ Low rock band's major-label bow after a series of highly acclaimed independent albums has the potential for a long-deserved commercial breakthrough on the strength of such subtle, deceptively catchy tracks as Early To Bed, Eleven O'Clock, the swinging Wishing Well and Murder. This time around, the band has colored its core bass/drums/saxophone sound with mellotron, guitar and guest vocals, increasing its chances for mainstream acceptance. Having blazed its own musical trail in the early '90s, Morphine now cements it with an album that will be remembered as a creative milestone.

Maureen McGovern, The Music Never Ends, Sterling _ You know the players. Superb cabaret artist Maureen McGovern sings 12 tunes by the lyric writing team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and their composer collaborators _ Michel Legrand, Dave Grusin, John Williams, Johnny Mandel, David Shire, and others. The singer greets old friends and less familiar ones with a fresh spirit, commanding such anthems to romance as The Way We Were, The Windmills Of Your Mind, The Summer Knows, You Must Believe In Spring, and I'll Never Say Goodbye.

DJ Muggs, Muggs Presents . . . The Soul Assassins, Chapter 1, Columbia _ As the sonic scientist behind much of Cypress Hill's blunted output, Muggs is already a hip-hop innovator to be reckoned with. On this cohesive compilation _ which brings together some of the biggest names from all over Planet Rap, including KRS-One, Goodie Mob, Mobb Deep, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht _ he reinforces his lofty position behind the mixing board. Despite the talented voices, his eerie beats and dark, haunting grooves are the stars of this album.

Los Pericos, Yerbabuena, EMI Latin _ Argentina's good-time reggae titans return with another zesty blend of ska/reggae gems (Por Una Cabeza, Como Un Gavilan, Boulevard,) colored at times with tango, dancehall, samba and '70s funk. A breezy reggae cover of the Beach Boys classic In My Room sails along smoothly until it drop kicks into a startling mambo/funk riff that would have sounded pretty cool as a stand-alone instrumental piece.

Rob Eberhard Young, Sticks & Stones, Imaginary Road _ Leave it to Will Ackerman, the Windham Hill founder who brought us Alex De Grassi and Michael Hedges, to unearth another inventive guitarist. Rob Eberhard Young shows the influences of those musicians and weds his skills to kinetic melodies that often flow out of minimalist cycles and funky, hard-picking grooves. Young is joined by bassist Michael Manring, who underpins melodic flights that are fleshed out by ghost echoes and effects. In fact, there's a hidden 25-minute track of hypnotic ambient guitar loops at the end.

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