Soundgarden

Imagine the Beatles in plaid flannel and nose rings, and you get some sense of what this latest, and finest, Soundgarden disc sounds like. Continuing what it began on 1994's Superunknown, the Seattle-based grunge band takes trenchant pop melodies that would have sounded right at home on The White Album and turns them loose in the mosh pit. Thunderous guitar crunches and lead singer Chris Cornell's soaring vocals get your heart pounding, but there is always an irresistible melodic hook that makes the volume enticing rather than distancing. Likewise, the lyrics are more personal and compelling than in the past (case in point: "Never Named," in which a confused teen complains, "I got my father's sense/ And my big brother's pants/ And I look like a man/ And I feel like an ant"). Perhaps the best thing about the Beatles' music was how it broke down the walls between genres, luring fans with varied tastes. With Down on the Upside, Soundgarden breaks the walls down and pulverizes them. (A&M)

Everything but the Girl

As a chronicle of love's demise, the English duo's new album matches the eloquence of Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, a 1978 opus in which Gaye documented the disintegration of his 12-year marriage to Anna Gordy and its turbulent aftermath. EBTG's Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, who are a happily unwedded couple, are "walking wounded" only in their dreams. But what vivid imaginations they have! Watt creates tension by merging syncopated jungle rhythms, splashes of techno and rumbling hip-house grooves. Thorn, in turn, tempers her blue mood with sarcastic wit in "Big Deal": "You spend four nights a week now/ Looking for your inner child/ What you gonna say when you find him/ Suppose you don't like him/ Or he doesn't like you." Moments like this make EBTG's bittersweet love hangover an intoxicating thrill. (Atlantic)

The Neville Brothers

Well, it finally happened. New Orleans' famous brethren have been churning out consistently potent brews of funk, R&B and other, more exotic elements throughout most of this decade. But the song selection on the brothers' latest album elicits more of a shrug than a cheer. They reshape Bill Withers's gem "Ain't No Sunshine" into a funkier, guitar-driven rocker, but bring little imagination to the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain." The rest of the disc features melodies as memorable as last year's Saturday Night Live skits. Not to worry, though. After delivering so much joyous music for nearly two decades, they will surely rebound from this momentary lapse of inspiration. (A&M)

Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Okay, so Costello's last release, 1995's Kojak Variety, was simply a collection of cover tunes. After releasing 17 studio albums in 19 years, the prolific singer-songwriter deserved to take it easy. But his old work ethic has apparently kicked back in—only 4 of the 12 tunes here have been previously recorded. The result is one of the most sophisticated discs of Costello's career. His old bandmates, the Attractions, are back, and the music seems closest in spirit to 1982's Imperial Bedroom. Each song has a twist to it, like "Complicated Shadows," a rock number that opens quietly but literally builds to a scream. The album is so good, in fact, that Costello has earned himself a real vacation. (Warner Bros.)

>Brian Setzer

NO STICKY FINGERS ON HIS AXE

As a rockabilly turned big-band leader, Brian Setzer didn't just stretch, he multiplied. The former lead singer-guitarist for the '80s trio Stray Cats is now the front man of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a classy, brassy 17-member band whose new album, Guitar Slinger (Inter-scope), blends rock with jump blues and '50s swing. The 37-year-old tattooed guitar wizard has taken his two-year-old act on an 18-city tour that ends June 8. "I don't know that I won't burn out touring with this band," says Setzer, who lives in Los Angeles. "But right now, it's a place I want to be at."

Do you have any guitar superstitions?

You better believe it. I won't play that guitar if my hands aren't clean. I mean, I've got to wash my hands about 10 times. I'm really anal about touching it. The guys in my band joke about it. "Oh, Setzer ate chicken—that's a five-time hand wash." Also, if I'm too polite with it, it doesn't play well. It plays best when I'm sweating on it and beating the hell out of it.

How did you get your first tattoo?4

I wanted them real young. When we were 16, [boyhood pal and, later, Stray Cat bandmate] Slim Jim Phantom and I used to take our moms' lipsticks and pencils and draw daggers and skulls on our arms. Then we'd go out like that, thinking we were cool. When we had girlfriends, though, the following year, we got real ones.

Who were your early influences?

My era was Led Zeppelin and Genesis, but I never related to the whole Emerson, Lake and Palmer thing. They were about no style and spacing out, not rocking out. When I heard the Sex Pistols, it was salvation. I was into shaking my fist while wearing a cool haircut. I'm sorry, but ELP was the enemy.

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Peter Castro.