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STEREOTYPE-BUSTING TEXAS SURPRISINGLY GOOD

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With a name like Texas, you might expect to hear plenty of Lone Star pedal steel guitars, Texas blues, Austin-folk.

If so, you will be disappointed with Texas' "Ricks Road," a deliciously cosmopolitan release that shatters Texas stereotypes with a sound more reminiscent of the Pretenders and Indigo Girls, all while en route to one of the year's most exciting debuts.Led by Sharleen Spiteri and Ally McErlaine, Texas delivers impeccable vocal harmonies, crisp melodies and irresistible rhythms. Lyrically, Texas plays it safe - occasionally too safe - with songs of love found, love lost, crying, laughing and friendships.

Where Texas shines is when it steps outside the predictable, as with "You Owe It All to Me" - a wickedly seductive tune wherein the jilted half of a relationship matter of factly strikes back with phrases such as "I thought you were a friend of mine" and "without me you would be nowhere."

Also good is "Listen to Me," a bluesy, slow-moving ballad that builds gradually to an emotional climax, and "So In Love With You," a powerful pledge of love in the face of addiction: "I'm watching you suffer, yourself and your pain, please don't fade away."

And "I Want to Go to Heaven" is an Etta James-esque blues tune that grabs your heart, twists and then seduces with some bewitching electrical guitar riffs.

Texas delivers 14 surprisingly engaging songs (including a better-than-average cover Al Green's "Tire of Being Alone") with scarcely a hint of mediocrity. In fact, you may find yourself shaking your head in disbelief that these upstarts are as good as they appear to be.

- UNLIKE TEXAS, which no one had heard of before "Ricks Road," Peter Himmelman has been around the block a few times. Not that very many people paid attention to him then. But he is a recording business veteran with a small but loyal contingent of fans.

Not content with being labeled a promising young singer-songwriter, Himmelman's latest release, "Skin," is an ambitious recording project more akin to Pink Floyd's "The Wall," complete with pretentiousness, eerie female vocals and images that exude despondency and pain.

As the liner notes explain: "Imagine the most abhorrent person. Let's call him Ted. Ted is consumed. He is in hot pursuit - chasing the shadows of an illusory world."

"Skin" follows Ted through a four-act musical odyssey of death and renewal, space and time, incarnation and reincarnation. Heady stuff for a 14-song sojourn.

Unfortunately, "Skin" bogs down under the weight of its own pretentiousness. Unlike rock musical characters such as Pink and Tommy, you never really come to care for Ted either through lyrics or musical sounds.

And unlike the masterpieces that Himmelman attempts to mimic, "Skin" is more a melodic famine than it is a feast. To buy into "Skin" requires preoccupation with what Himmelman has to say, not what it sounds like when he says it.

Sure, there are some good tracks, in particular electrical distortion of "11 Months in the Bath of Dirty Spirits," the folk-rock "Regular Daydreams" and the hauntingly beautiful "Shilo."

The best of the bunch is "With You," a bouncy, upbeat rock tune with lyrics that plead: "With you I can see past the lies and greed in this burned out city, with you I can run from the shell-shocked demons dancin' in my head."

Not all of "Skin" is cloaked in dark images. There is also a sense of optimism, second chances and wisdom. As Himmelman (a.k.a. Ted) observes on "Been Set Free": "I have believed in money but all I got was greed, I have believed in vengeance but all I did was bleed, I have believed in fame but fame turned its back on me, If only I had believed in love."

"Skin" is an undeniably ambitious effort that falls short of greatness, but does nothing to diminish Himmelman's reputation as a promising songwriter.

- JIMMY VAUGHAN will forever live in the creative shadow of his late-great brother Stevie Ray, which is unfortunate given the fact Jimmy has never attempted to be Stevie Ray.

While Stevie Ray was an unparalleled guitarist who took blues rock to unprecedented heights, Jimmy has been more of a traditional bluesman, interpreting the genre more than pioneering new directions. That is particularly evident on "Strange Pleasure," a delicious feast of Texas blues (all are originals except for a cover of the Neville Brothers "Six Strings Down").

For fans of Vaughan's Fabulous Thunderbirds-style of Texas boogie, "Strange Pleasure" may be a disappointment, the album's playful opening track of "Boom Bapa Boom" not withstanding.

The free-spirited nature continues with the blues-rockers "Don't Cha Know" and "Hey Yeah," and then settles into a rawer, more traditional blues feel.

The brassy "Tilt A Whirl" has a reckless abandon as if it were lifted from the streets of New Orleans, and "Six Strings Down" is an acoustic gem dripping Delta blues.

One of the album's finest cuts is also the most radio-friendly. "(Everybody's Got) Soul Vibe" is a sweet tune with molasseslike rhythms that inspires you to grab your sweetheart and start dancing real slow.

And "Love the World" is a blues chant that intertwines religion and traditional blues riffs. Vaughan prays: "Drink of the holy water, drink of the holy blood, walk through the shadow in the valley, lead us through the deep end mud, love the world, his love will never end, he made a garden of love for mankind to tend."

Amen.

Vaughan's blues are uncomplicated, riveting and faithful to the tradition established by blues greats of yesteryear. If "Strange Pleasure" has a glaring weakness, it's the same as that noted for white bluesman Steve Miller: No question he can play the blues, but can he sing them? Vaughan is not shabby, but there's still some work to do on the vocals.