Though the first half of System of a Down's much-anticipated third album won't arrive in stores until May 17, the "Mezmerize" disc is already widely available on the Internet, and it's one of the most buzzed recordings of 2005.

The album doesn't break any new ground, but that hardly seems necessary with a group like this. Tracks such as "Revenga," "Sad Statue" and "Question!" already feature such a wide-ranging and disorienting swirl of disparate sounds -- veering wildly from pile-driver hard-core to thrash shred guitar and double-bass drumming, and from beautiful, pseudo-psychedelic arena-rock to Middle Eastern folk music and flourishes of progressive-rock virtuosity -- that adding one new ingredient to the complex musical stew would only cause indigestion.

"B.Y.O.B." (or "Bring Your Own Bombs"), the first single and opening track following a forgettable bit of musical scene-setting called "Soldierside," claims an instant place as the best tune System of a Down has produced. A furious, weird but insanely catchy diatribe against America's war in Iraq, the song boasts the memorable and lilting chorus, "Everybody is going to the party/Have a real good time/ Dancing in the desert/Blowing up the sunshine," and it was a highlight and one of the few new tracks during the band's show at Metro last week.

Unfortunately, as in the past, the disc also boasts a number of dismissible and sophomoric attempts at scatological humor, including "Cigaro" and "Violent Pornography," which revels in the sexism and sensationalism of Reality TV while pretending to condemn it, and it ends with the lame one-two punch of "Old School Hollywood" and "Lost in Hollywood," two disappointingly easy goofs on the group's native Tinseltown that are as weak as music as they are as sociological observation.

The band's hero Frank Zappa had similar soft spots for indefensible potty humor and easy jabs at mainstream culture. Despite his long and accomplished career, Zappa never rose above these annoying tendencies, and they drag down even his most brilliant work. System of a Down suffers from the same weakness here, but we can hope this group will grow out of it.



While none of them have eclipsed the greatness of his old band, the former Golden God has made the best albums of his post-Led Zeppelin career on his own, when he's cared the least about re-creating that legendary brontosaurus stomp, rather than when he has reunited with his old mate Jimmy Page, only to be dragged down by the weight of their collective history.

Plant's first solo album since 2002 and his first real collection of new material in 12 years is an energetic, tuneful and often inventive set that blends a relatively modern sounding hard-rock crunch: credit his backing band, the Strange Sensation, which features veterans of Portishead and Roni Size's Reprazent, for the vitality of tracks such as "Freedom Fries" and "Shine It All Around" -- with hints of his beloved blues ("The Enchanter"), Middle Eastern world beats ("Another Tribe") and melancholy folk-rock (notably on "All the Kings Horses," the strongest if most understated track here).

The singer's voice isn't as powerful as it was circa, say, "Presence," much less Zep's early '70s heyday, but we have to credit him for striving to remain relevant. On the other hand, his other surviving bandmate, John Paul Jones, does an even better job of continuing to challenge us musically. And the question remains with any new Plant offering: If we discount the accomplishments of his old combo, would we really care about this disc?



Since the Dave Matthews Band curtails its worst, most indulgent impulses in order to meet the demands of pop radio and VH1, its studio albums are never the soul-sapping ordeals that its endless, jam-crazed endurance-fest concerts are. At times, the group's discs are even sort of pleasant -- in a no-heavy-lifting, easy-listening, sub-Sting background music way -- and "Stand Up," the group's first album of new material since 2002's "Busted," is no exception, pro or con.

You don't want to listen too closely to Dave's lyrics, which tend to mistake frat-boy ogling for romantic poetry ("Your top was untied and I thought how nice it would be to follow the sweat down your spine," he coos in "Dreamgirl") or revel in laughable New Age philosophizing ("Oh great light of love," he repeatedly moans in "Hunger for the Great Light"). And his singing still sounds as if he really needs to clear his throat.

On the plus side, the modest hooks and gentle grooves carry you through mildly tarted-up folk-rock ditties such as "American Baby" and "You Might Die Trying" with relatively little pain as producer Mark Batson -- best-known for crafting chart-toppers for Eminem, 50 Cent and India Arie -- keeps notoriously flatulent and solo-happy violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist LeRoi Moore firmly in check.

Lovers of rock, jazz, folk or pop with even the faintest hint of an edge shouldn't even consider buying "Stand Up," but they won't have to run in horror if it happens to be playing in the coffee shop as they buy their morning latte. And if that seems like it's damning with the faintest praise possible, well, you're either a diehard Matthews fan or someone who's never had the questionable pleasure of having Dave's "gifts" rain down on you in concert or while floating down the Chicago River.

Jim DeRogatis



Because he isn't lashing out at anyone here -- as he's so often done with errant fans at his Chicago shows, or as he infamously did once on this reviewer's voice mail -- many critics would have us believe that this is the album where Ryan Adams has finally matured. But the juvenile rock 'n' roll antics have never really been young Ryan's problem; those are, after all, pretty entertaining.

Absurdly prolific -- this double album is the first of three releases he plans to issue this year -- Adams falls short of the greatness he so eagerly claims for himself, partly because of his inability to edit or restrain his alleged genius, but mostly because of his insincerity, best displayed by a startling lacking of originality and an undying devotion to mimicry that continues on "Cold Roses," his return to his alt-country roots after the divergent genre-hopping of his last two offerings, "Love Is Hell" and "Rock 'n' Roll."

So who does Adams (choose one) rip off, imitate or pay homage to here? I hear the harmony-happy folk-rock of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Grateful Dead circa "American Beauty," the chilled-out, sexed-up rockabilly of Chris Isaak, the melancholy lilt of James Taylor or Neil Young in his acoustic mode, and of course plenty of that old alt-country standby, Gram Parsons. Sometimes, Adams mixes things up by giving us a couple of these influences at once: "Magnolia Mountain" equals the Dead's "Sugar Magnolia" plus Young's "Sugar Mountain." But that's as original as he gets.

There is no shame in hitting the iPod shuffle of your influences when you're writing tunes, and yes, I know that no one in rock 'n' roll is ever truly original; everyone borrows from the past. But until Adams gets beyond this phase of his development and matures for real, he's always going to be alt-country's answer to Lenny Kravitz.

Jim DeRogatis