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Record Review 

Josh Joplin Group: Useful Music

If you can judge an artist by affiliation, Josh Joplin is in good company. Last year's Useful Music album, originally available on Shawn Mullins' independent SMG label, is set for a higher profile re-release this week by much larger indie New York-based label Artemis Records.

Although a relatively recent arrival, Artemis -- headed by music biz veteran Danny Goldberg -- has already signed an impressively diverse roster including rocker J Mascis, country maverick Steve Earle, rapper Kurupt, world music sensations the Baha Men and veterans Rickie Lee Jones, Todd Rundgren and Warren Zevon.

While he's attained bubbling-under star status in Atlanta, it'll be interesting to see how Joplin fares nationally. Although Useful Music -- his third and best album -- is a pensive and professional work, Artemis hired ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison (Live, Verve Pipe) to produce two additional tracks. While neither "Matter" nor "Camera 1" redefines Joplin, the former bears an unnerving similarity to Collective Soul's throbbing arena rock and the latter sounds like early-'80s R.E.M. In other words, they're more commercially accessible than his other, more lyrically challenging tunes. The album also features an additional remix of Joplin's dour yet tuneful suicide parable, "I've Changed."

Otherwise, nothing has changed. Joplin's Stipe/Billy Joel vocal mannerisms go down smoothly atop his literate pop/rock. While far from hit radio material, these songs are his best bet for nabbing a wider audience. From subtle sitar strains to mournful trumpet, and the jaunty, only slightly embarrassing rapping (a la "It's the End of the World as We Know It") of "Superstar," Joplin's ready to stake his claim in the big leagues. If he fares even half as well Mullins did, his music will prove useful indeed.

The Josh Joplin Group's CD re-release party is Fri., Jan. 23, at the Variety Playhouse.

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