Mer de Noms
Virgin Records

While it has been widely reported as such, A Perfect Circle is not a Toolside-project. Yes, Tool's lead singer, Maynard James Keenan, does lend his voice on Mer de Noms ("Sea of Names"), but the creative force behind this record is guitarist/bassist/vocalist/producer Billy Howerdel. Keenan's presence invites Tool comparisons, though, and A Perfect Circle occasionally serve up the slow and heavy riffage a la Tool, most notably on the opening track, "The Hollow" as well as on the first single, "Judith." Beyond that, A Perfect Circle is a horse of a different color entirely.

Much of the rest of Mer de Noms is ethereal and otherworldly, a patchwork of melodic cacophony. "3 Libras" is both haunting and beautiful, with a swirling undertow of viola and violin adding an almost hypnotic effect. In a similar vein is "Orestes," which comes off as something one might expect from Portishead rather than from Tool.

Probably the most interesting track here is "Over," the final song on the disc. Consisting solely of piano and hushed-whisper vocals, "Over" would make an effective lullaby. It has the same feel as the not-quite-awake but not-yet-asleep state which many people experience before falling asleep.

As a whole, Mer de Noms is more of a neo-classical record than a rock record. There are no catchy choruses or infectious hooks. This isn't a party record, but a record best experienced through headphones in the dark. -Matt Dacey

Soundtrack to Me, Myself & Irene
Elektra Records

What would you do if you couldn't buy the rights to your favorite old songs? In the case of comic filmmakers The Farrelly Brothers, the answer is to ride the recent wave of tribute albums. But with an honoree as unique as Steely Dan, the pitfalls can pile up.

Actually, the remakes of old Becker/Fagen tunes make up only half the soundtrack. The remainder are typical "songs inspired by" fodder, mostly signature-sound retreads by acts who are between multiplatinum albums (The Offspring, Third Eye Blind).

Donald Fagen clearly comes out the winner here. Of course, he gets plenty of royalty money. But his performances now merit the respect of his detractors.

Who'd have thought that talent like Ben Folds and Jeff Tweedy would come up short trying to sing their way into the dry quirky heart of "Barrytown" and "Any Major Dude Would Tell You?" Smash Mouth put up a fun "Do It Again" because their mix of goofing attitude and genuine musical chops goes along with Steely Dan like a tag-along little brother. Ivy and The Push Stars also get away clean with their respective covers, because they're not straining to imprint personal style on the songs.

The Farrellys are genuine in their commitment to supporting quality music via their soundtracks: witness the inclusion of Ellis Paul's best song, plus their continuing relationship with The Push Stars. But an album that weaves in Steely Dan songs-even when they're blithely glossed over by Brian Setzer-is going to make the Foo Fighters look small and empty. -T.E. Lyons

Songs From the Grass String Ranch
Audium Entertainment

Incredibly adept at blending country and rock sounds to create music that really kicks, The Kentucky Headhunters continue to deliver their own brand of backwoods flavor. Songs From the Grass String Ranch is a solid record that truly allows this energetic outfit to shine. With aggressive guitar work and strong vocal performances, these fine boys have created a record of diverse tastes that's sure to make you move.

There are warm and compassionate pop/rock numbers like "Once In A While" and "The Dreamin' Kind" that feature impressive melodies and fantastic harmonies. The aptly titled "Jessico" happens to be the most country sounding song on the record, a bonafide ode to the Dancin' Outlaw himself, Jessico White. "Back to the Sun" is a touching, haunting ballad while "Too Much to Lose" plays like an old standard, like a sad number straight off of the radio in the 1950s.

But this band really makes sparks when they play big, meaty rock 'n' roll. "Rock On" and "Country Life" find the band ripping it up with plenty of heavy riffs. "Love That Woman" features some rockin' slide guitar. The strut and swagger of "Louisianna CoCo" (yes, that's how they spelled it) is infectious, as is its howling chorus. And the piano-fueled rebel rock of "Grass String Ranch" is enough to knock you down.

With the talents of Reese Wynans on piano and B-3 organ, this self-produced effort sounds clean and full. Fusing multiple musical elements, the Headhunters play with plenty of instrumental inspiration, offering healthy doses of country and blues tinged rock for all who will listen. -Chris Webb