FREAKWATER 1/12, LOUNGE AX On their fourth and finest album, Old Paint (Thrill Jockey), Freakwater continue to make their hillbilly appropriations more organic, imbuing their music with greater warmth and beauty than ever before. In the past the group tried too hard to maintain a formal purity. But their striking originals now reside easily with old country and folk nuggets; the material serves them rather than the other way around. The untrained warble of Cathy Irwin intertwines masterfully with Janet Bean’s refined croon, and Bob Egan’s spare pedal steel and National guitar offer just the right amount of ornamentation. Dishes open.

EKOOSTIK HOOKAH 1/12, HOG HEAD McDUNNA’S Daffy infantry in the ever-swelling neohippie jamming brigade, this Columbus, Ohio, quintet keeps its pan-stylistic grooves on the softer side of the overwrought blues-rock attack that characterizes most of the troops. On their self-released Dubba Buddah (great title, eh?) Ekoostik Hookah sing about lots of dopey stuff, from the harmonic convergence to riverboat gambling, amid languid rhythms, tinkling-waterfall piano, and jangly guitars–with plenty of obligatory jamming. In the rush to inherit the Grateful Dead’s throne, this combo has enough, um, hair to make an impressive showing.

DAN ZANES 1/12, SCHUBAS On his solo debut, Cool Down Time (Private Music), the former Del Fuegos leader joins producer Mitchell Froom to deliver stripped-down roots music over nicely distended grooves. In his old band Dan Zanes tried hopelessly to bridge the gap between 60s revisionism and mid-80s mainstream stupidity; it was a tough listen. He sounds more relaxed here, wedding swampy guitar with soulful tunesmithing to suggest a less tortured post-Big Star Alex Chilton. Froom’s electric-piano and organ fills put some lean meat on the music’s bones.

THROW 1/13, LUNAR CABARET Throw’s new Low Country (Symbiotic/Buzz) finds the trio exploring the ubiquitous sensitive-guy unplugged format. Unfortunately, without the power of rock’s bluster, the songs of Wade Iverson are just indistinctive bits of guitar arpeggios and frail, unmemorable melodies. They open for Falstaff.

G//Z/R, WICKER MAN 1/13, METRO Led by Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, G//Z/R seem to be a side project designed to allow the elder metallurgist to muse on something besides the sludge he’s been producing for the last 25 years. On its debut, Plastic Planet (TVT), the band, which also features Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell, trudges through a variety of post-Sab stances, from swirling grindcore to Soundgarden-esque goth. On “Giving Up the Ghost” Butler chides the metal ranks who’ve foolishly mishandled the satanic tendencies of his old band: “You are desperately seeking Satan.” Wicker Man vocalist/bassist Keith Pastrick claims, “Lately, people are taking everything way too seriously.” Well, based on their eponymous debut–finally released on Hollywood Records after Imago, the label that signed them long ago, went belly-up–he should be satisfied: no one with a modicum of taste will take their warmed-over sub-Helmet grinding seriously.

AFTER 7 1/14, STAR PLAZA On its third album, Reflections (Virgin), this male vocal trio, seamlessly guided by producer Babyface, offers more silky harmonies amid a variety of new-jack slow jams. As often happens with these glossy vocal acrobatics, one discovers that they’re not so much singing songs as delivering sleight-of-voice crooning over bland vamps with synth washes. They open for Regina Belle.

TOENUT 1/18, LOUNGE AX On its debut, Information (Mute), this Atlanta quintet flounces between peppy pop, herky-jerk retro new wave, and cluttered guitar noise, with only Katie Walters’s ethereal vocals as a constant. Folks may think the band’s eccentric treatment of familiar indie-rock moves deserves applause, but if you’re sick of yellow mustard, wouldn’t you change to Dijon instead of just switching brands? –Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Arthur Elgort.