JUDGING BY the latest crop of releases, the pop and rock coming out of Baltimore these days is about as diverse as the city's neighborhoods. Here's a look at recent efforts by several area bands.
Crack the Sky "Dog City" (Grudge). Like Jeff Lynne, everything John Palumbo touches in the studio has a certain cleverness and sheen about it, and "Dog City" is about as crafty an album as you're likely to find on an independent label. Still, for all of Palumbo's production know-how, "Dog City" is only as good as the songs, which makes it a rather dicey bet. Despite his affection and knack for evoking everything from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, several undeniably catchy songs and arrangements are undermined by slight lyrics -- "Love Me Like a Terrorist" and the predictable broadside "Mr. President," for example -- which fall far short of the mark. As a '60s-minded auteur, Palumbo is heard to better advantage on his recent solo album "Victim of the Nightlife" (also on Grudge), stylishly updating Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side" and cleverly recalling the simple pleasures of Motown.
"Audition" (OHO). A baker's dozen, these tracks initially make you feel that it's the singer, not the songs, that's important. After all, Grace Hearn has a marvelous voice -- an alternately ethereal and sultry soprano that's perfectly in sync with OHO's quirky acoustic-electronic blend. The more you listen, though, the more you're likely to notice that chief songwriter and guitarist Jay Graboski is the principal reason why the band has been around so long.
The Last Picture Show
"Trouble in Texas" (LPS) Lu Maestro's voice, on the other hand, has its limitations, and he's not especially mindful of them on this collection. His droning, despairing songs take some getting used to as well, and yet on the title track, "Dear Frances" and other tunes, the combination nearly always creates a powerfully unsettling effect -- no doubt just what Maestro had in mind.
Billy Kemp and the Paradise Rockers
"Nightwaves" (Essential). Halfway through this six-song CD appears the innocent rocker "That's What Love Will Do To You," the first and only real inkling of the kind of roots-rock charm and energy Kemp and his guitar are capable of conjuring on stage. Not only do the opening cuts, "Nightwaves" and "When She Was Mine," sound stilted by comparison, but the overly familiar blue-collar saga "Down the Road" never achieves the rousing emotional payoff a song like this demands.
One by One
"One by One" (Lakota). Whenever this five-song CD loses sight of the dance floor, its appeal falls off sharply. Certainly the atmospheric ballad "Come Monday" is no match for the percolating rhythms that make "Stop Talking" and "Dancin' a New Dance" such savvy pop fare. The duo also has something to say, though it's nowhere nearly as persuasive as the beat.
"Rain Pain Butane" (Blue Bus). As the album title and tunes like "(This World Is a) Ball and Chain" and "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 666" suggest, this thrash trio isn't lacking an attitude or a sense of humor. And a good thing too, since those qualities and the occasional rhythmic onslaught help temper what otherwise would be a dreary, soul-deadening album to experience more than once.