Published September 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

To hear Sloan's first radio hit, 1992's smart silly love song "Underwhelmed" ("She was underwhelmed, if that's a word"), you'd have thought the Canadian foursome was just another sloppy alternaband. But after two more albums and a troubled go at its own indie label, murderecords, Sloan delves into retro territory with its latest release, "Navy Blues."

Full of high-pitched harmonies, organ music and flashy guitar, "Navy Blues" would fit right into a classic rock playlist. The edge of earlier songs has been replaced by happier, peppier tunes. The Beatle-esque "C'mon C'mon" and boppy "Keep on Thinkin'" might not have much of a statement to make (in fact, it's hard to hear the words over the multiple background harmonies), but this album is about having fun playing funky bass lines, not getting heady with the lyrics. With strong musicianship and clean mixing, "Navy Blues" has the spirit of a teenage boy band playing Led Zeppelin tributes in the basement.

But classic rock wouldn't be classic rock without a little self-indulgence. "Money City Maniacs" opens with sirens and some suspense-building power chords. And the more upbeat "Iggy & Angus" tells the fans, "We're still the same after all these years/It's funny how you get a feel for it when you finally lose your sense of fear." It's hard to say if "Navy Blues" will be Sloan's ticket to increased airplay, on any part of the dial: Abrupt tempo changes successfully stifle the head-bobbing impulse. But who really wants happy music anyway, with all this irony doing so well?

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John Hiatt
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-->BY ANDREW HAMLIN | America knows John Hiatt, architect of the wistful, artfully twisted love song, much better than it ever knew John Hiatt, piss-and-vinegar specialist from the late '70s/early '80s cusp that spawned like-minded contenders such as Graham Parker. Hiatt held his own in those days with an intensity of delivery coupled with caustic observation. The one vinegar-vintage track here, "Take Off Your Uniform," is a torrid shredding of first the singer's designated target, then himself, then both together, wrapped in the science-fiction trappings of a coffee-fueled paranoid schizophrenic. Elsewhere, the artfully twisted love song architect dabs some darkness into his corners with creepy organ runs plus his own contorted voice, and the original "Thing Called Love" is a revelation; next to Bonnie Raitt's wearying sincerity, Hiatt sounds like he's chewing glass and spitting shards between verses. Hiatt made his money demonstrating how to live well with some poison in your system, and that's valuable information. I only wish his unblinking eye would take a longer look at the tainted well.

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Rahsaan Roland Kirk
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BY GEOFF EDGERS | Rahsaan Roland Kirk would play three horns at once, carry a siren whistle to mark the end of a solo and break into a jubilant scat whenever the moment moved him. Which is probably why, during his prime, Rahsaan was overshadowed by "serious" players like Coltrane, Miles and Monk. But Rahsaan, who was just past 40 when he died in 1977, didn't see reason to change. After all, he could play and compose with anyone, from hard-bop to funk to strange, twisting saxophone symphonies. His two-line croon on a version of "My Cherie Amour" has to be one of the funniest, most joyful moments of the skronky, post-hard-bop period.

"A Standing Eight" -- the third multi-disc set Rahsaan put out by his former producer, Joel Dorn -- offers his final three albums in their entirety: "The Return of the 5000lb Man," "Kirkatron" and "Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real." All three are worth hearing, but the highlight is "Boogie-Woogie," recorded after the stroke that left Rahsaan partially paralyzed. No more triple horn runs; he had to learn to play without the use of his right hand. There's no way to forget those circumstances when listening to the album, especially the seven-minute version of "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor." Rahsaan's sad clarinet reminds me of Jelly Roll Morton's "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden," done in 1939 just before his death. It's as if both men -- unappreciated masters who wanted nothing more than to be heard -- had come to terms with the end.

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Medeski, Martin and Wood

BY EZRA GALE | The musicianship of this band has never been in question -- keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin are all phenomenally talented players. But sometimes they seem to be plodding along behind another instrument that isn't there. Which is why it's no surprise that the best recording the group has made thus far was John Scofield's "A Go Go" (released earlier this year), where the trio acted as a supertight backing group for the jazz guitarist.

Similarly, the undisputed high points on the new "Combustication" are found on the tracks that feature other collaborators. DJ Logic, a New York turntablist who's best been heard previously on Vernon Reid's excellent "Mistaken Identity" album, lights up three tracks, and East Village writer Steve Cannon lends a beat-style spoken word performance to "Whatever Happened to Gus." Two of the Logic tracks in particular, "Start-Stop" and "Church of Logic," manage to fuse the group's disparate influences into a sort of organic trip-hop, with the band laying down eerie funk vamps while Logic layers sound effects and scratches over the top. They're the kind of moments that make much of the rest of the album frustrating, because on its own, the trio often doesn't live up to this potential. There are worthwhile moments -- like "Nocturne," with Medeski wringing all sorts of sounds out of his vintage analog keyboards over the hypnotic groove, and "Just Like I Pictured It," with an overdubbed Mellotron that lends the tune an otherworldy feel. But more common are tunes like "Latin Shuffle," where the group sets up a pleasing groove -- and then doesn't move for nine minutes.

But, as their recent show at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium proved, these tunes are meant as launching pads for extended improvisation -- the kind that doesn't translate too well to a studio album (just ask the Grateful Dead). In the live show, unexceptional album cuts like "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho" and "Coconut Boogaloo" were stretched almost to the limit, gathering an irresistible momentum even without added instruments. Taken in this context, "Combustication" is more of a road map than an album, best used as a guide to get you to where the real action is.

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The Klezmatics with Chava Alberstein
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BY SETH MNOOKIN | The Klezmatics music is at once impudent, aggressive, heartwrenching, affirming. Perfectly capturing the raw emotion and impish mischief at the heart of klezmer music (often called Jewish jazz), the Klezmatics mix equal parts reverence and vaudevillian slapstick in a delicious, earthy stew.

"The Well," a selection of Yiddish poems set to music, is predictable only in its joyous, raw musicality. Alberstein, an Israeli diva who possesses a gorgeous, throaty voice, immediately finds her place with the band. Alternating between sly asides and full-bodied swoons, Alberstein (who has 47 albums under her belt) is clearly thrilled she has found a working band that shares her passion for Yiddish culture, and that can match that passion with talent.

The duets that Alberstein and Klezmatics vocalist Lorin Sklamberg share are highlights on an album that shines throughout. Trumpet player Frank London, violinst Alicia Svigals and drummer David Licht can shock a listener with their raw skill, but most pleasing is how, through a pair of twisted blues notes, a slippery riff or a seductive waltz beat, they can communicate the joy they get from playing.

In what could well serve as a motto for the band, Alberstein asks on "Kh'vel Oyston Di Shikn" ("I'm Going to Take off My Shoes"): "Tsi bin ikh den shuldik, vos s'gramt zikh/Alpi toes yid mit lid?" ("Is it really my fault if by error/Jew happens to rhyme with song?") No, it's not. And more important, it is most definitely our gain.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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