Two stars in the escalating British rock revival, the Stone Roses and Portishead, earn places in this month's guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop on a budget of $50 a month.
Pete Droge, "Necktie Second" (American). The album's "Fourth of July" is a song about a lost soul that combines the poignant imagery of John Prine with the sweet innocence of Gram Parsons, a sign that the folk-accented rocker from Portland has serious cult status potential. Other moments in this winning debut, however, offer the longing and detail of Tom Petty's early work, suggesting that Droge may not always be a stranger to the charts.
Portishead, "Dummy" (Go! Discs/London). This restrained, lushly atmospheric music is so cinematic that parts of it seem like a traditional soundtrack. When Beth Gibbons' smoky vocals are added, the music conveys the feel of a night in a stylish '40s supper club. At the point those elements intersect, Portishead captures breathlessly the feeling of love that leaves you wounded and exhausted but never defeated.
The Stone Roses, "Second Coming" (DGC). Consider yourself lucky if you never heard the British band's celebrated 1989 debut. You can avoid the debate about whether this long-delayed follow-up lives up to expectations--and just enjoy the album. John Squire's songs and bluesy guitar licks team with the soulful wonder of Ian Brown's vocals in frequently magical ways that recall classic rock elements, from Zeppelin to the Byrds, without sacrificing '90s independence.
The Ass Ponys, "Electric Rock Music" (A&M;). Rock is populated by so many bands with exaggerated ambition that it's refreshing to find a group with nothing more weighty on its mind than taking us on an afternoon stroll around a small Midwestern town. Against a backdrop of roots-accented music, the Cincinnati quartet raises gentle questions and offers quiet truths amid deceptive simplicity.
The Roots, "Do You Want More?!!!??!" (DGC). Lots of groups have experimented with a fusion of hip-hop and jazz, but this Philadelphia outfit is the most assured. Rather than taking sampling shortcuts, the Roots concentrate on live music in a collection that may not reach out with the accessibility of Digable Planets but is consistently wry and warm.
Martin Zellar, "Born Under" (Rykodisc). In this glowing solo debut, the leader of the late, great Gear Daddies writes blue-collar tales about hard times and hard lessons that are reminiscent of the eloquence of the Blasters in their prime. The best of the tracks offer an engaging sense of one's struggle with demons, real and imagined.