Hot CDs

Abra Moore’s wispy, quivering voice works hard to be heard among the loud, rude guitars of Strangest Places (Arista/Austin). It’s a far cry from her earlier, softer work with Poi Dog Pondering and as a solo artist. Even when she falters, the Austinite’s transformation into a rocker adds resonance to songs about self-identity, such as “Four Leaf Clover.” Meanwhile, her musings on romantic yearnings, illusions, and lessons learned replace her former hippie mysticism with a tense balancing act between the ethereal and the hard-nosed. JOHN MORTHLAND

Silly love songs and lines about Dungeons and Dragons might betray Radish front man Ben Kweller’s sixteen years, but on the Greenville trio’s debut, Restraining Bolt (Mercury), the execution is perfectly mature. Radish’s threadbare melodic alternative sound seems generic at times, but Kweller’s songwriting is definitely not: The kid’s got more hooks than Norman MacLean, and his emotional vocal phrasings add complexity and drama to the band’s catchy, simple pop tunes. JASON COHEN

There’s more than a little bit of Bill and Bonnie Hearne in Jerry Jeff Walker’s plaintive moan, Lyle Lovett’s eclectic instrumentation, Nanci Griffith’s delicate lyricism, and Robert Earl Keen’s larruping barroom swagger. Diamonds in the Rough (Warner Western) shows why the ex-Austinites have exerted such a strong influence on so many Texas folkies over the past 25 years. Singing in voices as pure as springwater, the Hearnes weave tales about faded rodeo cowboys (“Muley Brown”) and experiences unique to Texas (“Bluebonnet Girl”). JOE NICK PATOSKI

The combination of a smooth tenor sax and the lush tones of a Hammond B-3 organ is as seductive as anything in jazz. On Singing and Swinging (Menthol Records), Johnny Reno, who has progressed from a Fort Worth blues honker to a mellow jazz singer and player, combines his tenor with organists Jimmy Pugh and Red Young in a cool throwback to the late fifties. Add a few tracks with Reno’s bright vocals, like “Baby Just Cares for Me,” and you have the perfect accompaniment for the cocktail hour … and after. GREGORY CURTIS

Hot Book

A “form of torture”; “excruciatingly boring”; a “mixture of memories, dreams, and what-ifs”—these are just some of the ways Belton’s Suzanne Donovan defines life at Huntsville’s Ellis Unit. In Texas Death Row (University Press of Mississippi, $50), Donovan and photographer Ken Light depict the futureless routine of four hundred or so inmates; with a mixture of sympathy and revulsion, they chronicle in black and white dead men walking, talking, praying, and—largely—killing time. Along with documentary photos and brief interviews, there are excerpts from the death watch log, a painstaking account of a prisoner’s final 36 hours, and reproductions of intake forms relating wrenching details of the convicts’ crimes. ANNE DINGUS

Hot Movie

Ellen DeGeneres is out, Melissa Etheridge and her partner had a baby, and girl-girl love stories are dominating the film festival circuit—so is 1997 the entertainment industry’s Year of the Lesbian? Dallas siblings Gretchen, Julia, and Stephen Dyer hope so: Their debut film, Late Bloomers, the story of two middle-aged women who fall in love while working at a high school, opens next month. The film’s mainstream appeal lies in its depiction of homosexuality as ordinary; the protagonists are two people in love who only happen to be women. Says Gretchen: “I’ve seen conservatives watch this in a theater and come out beaming.” JORDAN MACKAY

Hot Couple

The May marriage of jazz-swing vocalist Maryann Price and producer Tary Owens, both of Austin, pairs soul mates with parallel life stories. Each drew inspiration from black roots musicians, was active in California’s frantic late sixties and seventies music scene—she with the Kinks and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, he with Big Brother and the Holding Company—and beat substance abuse to revitalize a stalled career. Today Price is flying high in Southwest Airlines’ singing cowgirl TV ads, and Owens runs Catfish Records, an independent blues label. He’s also producing Hot and Cole, her forthcoming CD of Cole Porter classics. Isn’t it romantic? RAE NADLER

Hot Ballroom

Parlez-vous texais? Houstonian Stephen Zimmerman does, and he’s parlaying his love of life’s finer things into a cultural hot spot. Back in 1995, Zimmerman bought an eighteenth-century French ballroom—yes, a whole ballroom—that had once belonged to legendary Texas oil magnate John Mecom and had been the salon of social doyenne Comtesse Elisabeth Greffulhe. After years of planning, Zimmerman has finally installed the breathtakingly beautiful paneled room, christened Le Grand Salon de la Comtesse, in a pavilion behind his restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, and he’ll host banquets, music and dance recitals, and readings there. The comtesse would approve. PATRICIA SHARPE