When Bruce Springsteen produced Joe Grushecky's 1995 album, "American Babylon," he reinforced what critics have been claiming since the Pittsburgh rocker's 1979 debut -- that Grushecky combines working-class narratives and classic rock'n'roll as effectively as the better-known John Fogerty, Bob Seger, Dave Alvin and Springsteen. New Jersey's favorite son co-wrote four songs on Grushecky's latest album, "Coming Home," but left the production to Grushecky and Crack the Sky's Rick Witkowski. The result is a more relaxed project -- less straining for big statements, a better mix of brashness and tenderness -- and one of Grushecky's best albums ever.
"It's a Hell of a Life," Grushecky declares on the album's key song, as he describes a Vietnam vet lying "in a tin-covered shotgun shack . . . listening to the wild dogs cry and dreaming of Elvis and Graceland in the sky." That song's twin refusals -- the refusal to deny today's hard times and the refusal to stop dreaming of better times tomorrow -- inform the whole album. Songs about a rootless drifter in a "Cheap Motel" and an urban loner who can't sleep are balanced by intimate tributes to the singer's parents ("1945") and wife ("In Our Little Room"). The music, too, swings from bruising bar-band frat-rock to sweet string-band music carried by accordion and mandolin.
Vince Converse is a Texas blues-rock guitarist and singer who takes Stevie Ray Vaughan's Jimi Hendrix tendencies a step further. Converse's debut solo album, "One Step Ahead," was overseen by Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer and is full of Hendrixisms -- heavily chorused riffs, high-pitched stabbing fills, swooping glissandos. There are no Hendrix compositions, but the songs by B.B. King, Willie Dixon, Lowell Fulson, Edgar Winter, the Counting Crows and Converse himself are arranged in the Hendrix style, though horns are added to several tunes. Converse has the technical chops to pull off this homage but not the imagination to make something new of it.
Both appearing Wednesday at Lewie's. To hear a free Sound Bite from Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8104. For a free Sound Bite from Vince Converse, press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Vince Converse's debut album has arrangements in the Hendrix style.