Cool Spins: The Mix Staff Picks Their Current Favorites

Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph) Admittedly, Waits' music is an acquired taste. The famously gruff vocals are a turn-off to some. And on recent albums

Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph)Admittedly, Waits' music is an acquired taste. The famously gruff vocals are a turn-off to some. And on recent albums Waits has often opted for extremely unusual sonics-heavily compressed and/or distorted growls over occasionally bizarre combinations of instruments and rhythmic noises. The first track, "Big In Japan," is a doozy, not for the faint of heart: it combines a seriously altered vocal, what sounds like someone banging on a metal washtub, an angular electric guitar line and Memphis-style horn blasts. But as is always the case with Waits' work, the songs (most of them collaborations with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) are mostly brilliant-the characters vividly drawn, the lyric images haunting and evocative, and the tunes beneath the sometimes ugly exteriors often actually quite pretty. The beautifully atmospheric "Hold On" is as lovely a song as he's ever written (and he's penned some real beauties), and there are a number of other gems on this consistently strong collection of folkish tunes, surprisingly sentimental ballads and twisted blues: I particularly like "The House Where Nobody Lives," "Pony," "Georgia Lee," "Picture in a Frame" and the hipster poem "What's He Building?" Not for everyone, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

Producers: Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan; Engineers: Oz Fritz and Jacquire King; Studio: Prairie Sun Recording (Cotati, CA); "Lowside of the Road" recorded by Gene Cornelius at Sputnik Sound; Mastering: Chris Bellman/Bernie Grundman Mastering (L.A.)

-Blair Jackson

Chuck E. Weiss Extremely Cool (Slow River/Rykodisc)The infamous Chuck E. is back with his first full-length album in 18 years. It's earthy, smoky rock 'n' roll and New Orleans R&B, with enough voodoo to conjure Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Weiss has joked that no one with over a third-grade education can play in his band, because his music is so primitive. I don't know what that says about the musicians on this CD, but they seem perfectly matched to Weiss' hot arrangements, especially the brilliant Tom Waits, who plays guitar and sings on the album in addition to co-producing. Waits and Weiss have had a mutual admiration thing since they were sharing a stage in L.A. 20 years ago, and Extremely Cool shows where the two artists still meet-in these powerful, thumping jungle drums, nightclub pianos, crunchy guitars and prophetic voices.

Producers: Tony Gilkyson, Tom Waits, George Howard, Mike Hutchinson and Chuck E. Weiss. Engineer: Mike Hutchinson. Studio: John Herron's. Mastering: Jeff Lipton/Peerless.

-Barbara Schultz

Faith Evans: Keep The Faith (Bad Boy)With the crossover popularity of female R&B/hip hop artists such as Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and more recently, Lauryn Hill, the genre has taken a strong turn toward melody. Formerly married to the late Christopher Wallace (better known as the Notorious BIG), Evans has made a disc that shines with Biggy's grooves and her own gorgeous vocal arrangements, aided by a number of top-notch producers and engineers. Her range is especially impressive on the dance-y "Love Like This" and the memorable "Caramel Kisses." Puff Daddy lends his voice on "All Night Long," but it is the beautifully textured and tastefully arranged ballads-notably the infectious "My First Love"-that are the real standouts. It's difficult to compare Evans to other R&B contemporaries because she has truly created her own sound, which will no doubt inspire others. A great pick for anyone who appreciates melodic and harmonic symmetry, regardless of genre.

Producers: Sean "Puffy" Combs, Ron "Amen-ra" Lawrence, J-Dub, Carl "Chucky" Thompson, Richard "Younglord" Frierson, Steven "Stevie J." Jordan, Dent (one song), David Foster (one song). Recording engineers: Joe Perrera, "Prince Charles" Alexander, Tony Smalios, Tom Russo, Alex Niehaus, Doug Wilson, Rob Paustian, Tom Cassel, Paul Boutin (one song), Tony Black (one song). Mixing Engineers: Tony Maserati, Niehaus, Michael Patterson, Alexander, Jon Gass, E'lyk, Black, Jordan. Recording Studios: Hit Factory (NYC), Larrabee West (L.A.), Daddy's House (NYC), Sony Music (NYC), Record Plant (NYC), Brandon's Way (L.A.). Mastering: Herb Powers/Powers Sound (NYC)

-Jason Perl

Polaris: Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete (Mezzotint)Since first appearing with his band Miracle Legion in the '80s, Mark Mulcahy has made consistently luminous, stirring guitar rock. On this new release, Mulcahy teams with the rhythm section from the last incarnation of Miracle Legion (who, these days, perform with Frank Black) under the name Polaris. The band appeared as fictional characters in the late, lamented Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and they recorded these Mulcahy-penned tunes over three years for the three seasons of the show. Despite the fictional guise, there's no mistaking the provenance of these songs: Mulcahy's warm, inviting voice has a strangely beguiling presence and power, and he sounds as good as ever here, while the music (at turns quiet and wistful or driving and ebullient) is soulful in an off-hand way. Loaded with surprising, beautiful moments.

Producers/Engineers: Drew Waters, Tom Buckland. Studios: Mill Rat (Providence, RI), 1313 (Cleveland). Mastering: Allied Digital Technologies (Long Island, NY)

-Adam Beyda

Rosie Flores: Dance Hall Dreams (Rounder)Some artists do it for love. Thank goodness, too, because otherwise talented singer/songwriter Rosie Flores might not still be making beautiful music. Though Flores has never received a whole lot of recognition, she continues to make her sparkling country/Tex-Mex albums, each more enjoyable than the last. This latest release is more singer/songwriterly than Flores' last solo release, Rockabilly Filly, though there's still a good dose of honky-tonk. Standouts are the first track, "Little Bit More," and "Bring It On." There are also several ballads, where lyrics and arrangements are more earnest, but in Flores' capable guitar-wielding hands, and thanks to her adorable voice, even the most strident compositions sound genuinely sweet.

Producers: Rosie Flores and Ray Kennedy. Engineer: Frank Campbell. Overdub recording: Rosie Flores and Ray Kennedy. Mixing: Ray Kennedy. Studios: Recorded at Cibolo Creek Country Club (San Antonio, TX); overdubs and mixing at Room & Board Studios (Nashville). Mastering: Hank Williams/Mastermix (Nashville).

-Barbara Schultz

Ginuwine: 100% Ginuwine (Sony/Epic)In the sometimes cookie-cutter world of R&B, it's nice to see acts that have unique recipes, master chefs at work and the talent to create their own name and style. To the innovator's list we should add Ginuwine and his latest CD release. From party grooves to slow ballads, 100% covers a gamut of styles. The CD's sound is marked by soothing, soulful vocals that flow easily over varied instrumental backdrops consisting of some unique drum patterns, live guitars and even some retro keyboard sounds (clavinets and Mini-moogs). "Do You Remember" takes the listener on a lover's journey, while "So Anxious" paints a picture of some very different emotions. And on "Same Ol' G," Ginuwine talks about staying grounded in the face of his new celebrity. The production of Timbaland and mixing by Jimmy Douglass create a nice, complementary balance between the vocal and instrumental parts. This sophomore release should go far in building his already large following.

Producer: Timbaland. Engineer/mixer: Jimmy "Senator" Douglass. Studio: Manhattan Center Studios (NYC).

-Mark Hopkins

Charles Lloyd: Voice In the Night (ECM)Here's an all-star band that really delivers-tenor saxophonist Lloyd fronting the ever-imaginative double-bassist Dave Holland, nimble drummer Billy Higgins and ECM guitar stalwart John Abercrombie. The disc covers a nice range of styles, from boppish inventions ("Homage") to playful takes on the blues ("Pocketful of Blues"), a dash of Latin flavoring ("Dorotea's Studio") and the quartet's ethereal rendering of Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing." There's a new reading of one of Lloyd's most famous compositions from the '60s, the multipart "Forest Flower: Sunrise/Sunset," and even a version of "God Give Me Strength" by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Abercrombie's silvery guitar lines mesh wonderfully with Lloyd's earthy and sensuous tone throughout this live-in-the-studio date. The tunes are warm and melody-rich, the atmosphere pleasingly casual. Pass the snifter of cognac, please.

Producer: Manfred Eicher. Engineer: James Farber. Studio: Avatar (NYC)

-Blair Jackson