The evolution of Everlast from leader of the Irish gangsta rap crew House of Pain to a modern hip-hop incarnation of Johnny Cash still seems incomprehensible to many listeners who first heard him on the hit "Jump Around," then barely recognized him when he linked up with Carlos Santana for "Put Your Lights On." But it seems like a natural evolution to the former Erik Schrody.

"When I was 20, I found rap and it was a form of rebellion" is how the artist explains his metamorphosis. "Now I'm reaching back to the things I shunned because it was my parents' music." With "White Trash Beautiful," Everlast continues the merger of rap with acoustic blues, gritty country and folkie rock that began on "Whitey Ford Sings the Blues" (1998) and continued with "Eat at Whitey's" (2000), creating a soundscape where Cash and Neil Young jam with Chuck D. and KRS-One.

Inspired by a failed relationship, Everlast lays bare the sensitive soul hiding behind that gruff exterior and hoarse baritone in songs such as "Sleeping Alone" and "This Kinda Lonely," a braver move for any rapper than bragging about being a thug. And he shows a novelist's eye on the title track and first single, telling a John Mellencamp-like tale of a pregnant waitress and her truck-drivin' man ("Trailer park queen/She slings hash at the diner from 11 to 5... White trash beautiful/Somethin' you should know/ My heart belongs to you").

As with the similarly genre-straddling Kid Rock, one suspects a fair amount of calculated opportunism in the persona Everlast has invented for himself. But that's nothing new in pop music, and when the formula is as appealing as his and the songs contain more genuine emotion than posing, there's absolutely no reason to complain.

Jim DeRogatis


Fans of trippy popsters the Beta Band have been waiting for years for the Scottish quartet to top the intoxicating rush of "Dry the Rain," the standout track from 1998's "The 3 EPs" (the debut album that packaged three earlier releases) and the head-turning anthem on the generally excellent soundtrack for the 2000 film "High Fidelity."

The band seemed rushed and uninspired on its second self-titled album, and it sacrificed melody to atmosphere on 2001's muddled "Hot Shots II," failures that may have inspired the title of its new disc. But in addition to standing as the group's most impressive production yet (with Radiohead guru Nigel Godrich giving us some of the bounciest Beatlesesque brass since The Teardrop Explodes), "Heroes to Zeros" marks a welcome return to form.

No, singer Steve Mason and his cohorts still haven't come up with another "Dry the Rain." But the first single "Assessment" is charmingly slippery psychedelic pop, and while mellower tracks such as "Wonderful" and "Troubles" are lush, lulling, mysterious but absurdly melodic and -- in keeping with these fellows' marijuana-scented mind-set -- wonderfully trippy.

Jim DeRogatis