Picks and Pans Review: Free

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Concrete Blonde

When he thought up the name for this L.A.-based quartet, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe (who got involved because he was then the band's labelmate) showed again how well he uses words. The band sounds exactly like its name, as rough and heavy as cement, with surprising bouts of lightness and vulnerability from lead singer Johnette Napolitano.

While many new groups veer off into one extreme genre or another, Concrete Blonde keeps the flame for basic hard rock. On their second release, Napolitano and her macho Blonde compatriots (they all have dark hair) prove themselves capable of rocking as riotously as Guns n' Roses while maintaining a much higher level of intelligence.

"God Is a Bullet" takes skillful aim at the NRA with a moving plea for gun control; "Happy Birthday" traces the winsome thoughts of an adult on that special day. Sounding as tough as Grace Jones might have if she hadn't joined the Top 40 parade, Napolitano breathes worldliness into every raspy syllable. With enticing '70s-style power riffs, the band keeps appropriate pace with her. This album will win fans who like to think a bit while they play air guitar. (IRS)

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