BARRENCE WHITFIELD and the Savages play r&b at such a frantic level that something's bound to get lost in the translation from performance to vinyl.

Their new album, "Ow! Ow! Ow!," suffers from a familiar problem: a tendency on Whitfield's part to pour more energy than emotion into his songs. But overall, it's the band's best recording to date.

For openers, the album boasts some great party tunes, beginning with "Rockin' the Mule," a blustery old-fashioned Little Richard-whooping shout mercilessly driven by the band. The next tune, "Madhouse," eases up on the throttle a bit, but Whitfield and the Savages lock into an exhilarating groove just the same. Then there's "Girl From Outer Space" and "Ain't She Wild," two of Whitfield's most manic (and occasionally shrill) performances, again powered by a band that sometimes sounds twice its size. But there's another side to the Savages, a more soulful and relaxed side. In fact, more contemporary r&b tunes like "The Blues Is a Thief," "Living Proof" and "Apology Line" are as impressive as anything on the album.

"Apology Line" was written by Ben Vaughn, whose always lively Combo opens the Whitfield at the Roxy. That group's most recent effort, "Beautiful Thing," has its own roots in early rock 'n' roll, surf and beach music, and rockabilly -- genres where simplicity and directness are the bottom line. Vaughn's an old-fashion dead-pan romantic, at his best on wistful ditties like "Shingaling With Me," "On the Rebound" and "Jerry Lewis in France." Sometimes Vaughn sounds like what might have happened if Lou Reed had influenced Bob Dylan rather than the other way around, but he always manages a neat wedding of lyric and melody, something those two seem to be having problems with these days. Like them, he's such a good songwriter that he's not a particularly good singer. --


"Ow! Ow! Ow!" (Rounder 9011).


"Beautiful Thing" (Restless 72216). Both appearing Friday at the Roxy.