You couldn't exactly say that Bill Whitten has carved out a distinguishedcareer, but the New York singer-songwriter has certainly managed a respectableone. Grand Mal, the band he's led since St. Johnny broke up in the wakeof modest alt-rock era success, is about as straightforward as they come. Theyplay rock, betraying influences like the MC5 and T. Rex, but summoning enoughoriginality to be judged on their own merits. On their third album and firstsince an overlooked 1999 major-label debut on Slash/London, Grand Mal enlistsat least a dozen players and Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer David Fridmann,who does an admirable job of assembling all the pieces into a clean-sounding,quite listenable record, albeit one with a few gaping holes. Whitten'ssongwriting is the main issue (although it should be noted that the album'stitle was already used by Jim O'Rourke back in 1997). Whitten's arrangementsare more simplistic than stripped down, and the layering of guitars, piano andbacking vocals can't mask the mundane 4/4 progressions that pervade. Andhis lyrics rely heavily on couplets, forcing cloying rhymes like "knockout/dropout," "mother/supper" andgulp"trashman/fashioned."Fortunately, he's a good singer, equipped with a classic-rock-soundingvoice with echoes of Bolan and Bowie, so even the most mundane lyrics coastby when the song rises beyond mediocrity. Tracks like the sprawling and nearlypsychedelic "Black Aura" and the acoustic-driven "Quicksilver"are musically engaging and fully enjoyable, offering the subtle hooks and smartmelodies on which Whitten has built his reputation.