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Schramms quietly made a handful of superb albums through the 1990s which offered all the proof you'd need that Dave Schramm was a top-shelf guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader. But with 2000's 100 Questions, Schramm and his usual studio cohort Gary Arnold have handed over the production duties to someone else for the first time, and the result is the band's strongest album to date. Musically, there isn't much that's strikingly different about 100 Questions: Schramm's songs are still as dour, slyly witty, and keenly intelligent as ever; his tastefully angular guitar solos are still a delight to hear; and his band is solid and fully in touch with the subtleties of the songs. But producer J.D. Foster has encouraged tighter and more concise arrangements for the musicians, which give them less space to drift than they displayed on Dizzy Spell (100 Questions' 11 cuts zip by in a snappy 38 minutes, while Dizzy Spell 's dozen take a more leisurely 57 minutes), and the songs gain a lot of punch in the process. And the album simply sounds better; Foster's production and mix are brighter, warmer, and more vivid than anything Schramms have enjoyed in the past, and it brings out the best in Ron Metz's drumming, Andrew Harris Burton's keyboards, and Schramm's guitar. And Schramm and company have certainly risen to the occasion for their fifth time at bat; "Torn in Two," "Deny You," and "Simple Arithmetic" are pop that's intelligent, engaging, and hooky as all get out, while "I'll Believe," "Mailbox," and "She Says" prove this band is no less exciting when they cut back the tempo. And it says a lot about how good the Schramms are on 100 Questions that the guest spots from Syd Straw, Richard Buckner, and Jeb Loy Nichols never upstage the group. It's hard to say why the Schramms aren't widely regarded as one of America's best and most interesting bands at the dawn of the millennium, but one listen to 100 Questions proves it's not because they don't have the goods. Mark Deming

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