‘Free’ Lacks Explosive Firepower, Heart : CONCRETE BLONDE “Free.” I.R.S. 1/2

This L.A. trio’s best songs are fragmentation bombs ready to explode--churning emotions and doubts at the center, with a hard, brittle exterior. So why doesn’t the group’s second album leave you picking shrapnel out of your ears? Is it just because the production (by the band) is flat? Or because Jim Mankey’s guitar playing is tame and predictable? Or because Johnette Napolitano’s emotions are a bit mushy?

In recent concerts, these same songs had heart and explosive firepower. Napolitano gave them effectively sharp-edged treatment, with Mankey, drummer Harry Rushakoff and new bassist Alan Bloch following suit. But only three survive the transition to record.

But those three are superb, delineating the three-cornered Concrete Blonde gestalt: randomness of life on the Hollywood streets (the Peter Gunned “God Is a Bullet”), living at the bottom but looking up with hope (“Help Me”), and remembering and/or looking forward to better times (the guilelessly Beatlesque “Happy Birthday”).

But the rest of the LP suffers from a combination of arena-rock moves and one-dimensional sound. Turning it up helps a bit, but you get the idea that though the fuse is lit, the explosion ain’t gonna happen.