Music Reviews


ROBYN HITCHCOCK

Moss Elixir (Warner Bros.)

If Robyn Hitchcock ever runs out of musical ideas he can probably get a job teaching English in a parallel universe, where all our rules of grammar apply but uttering borderline gibberish is perfectly acceptable. Hitchcock's knack for rhyme occasionally accommodates the stream of consciousness on planet Robyn, though. Moss Elixir's winner: the pairing of "Michael" and "spike'll." But Hitchcock's use of eccentric images to decorate his melodies is nothing new. The big Surprise here is that, sans the Egyptians, Hitchcock has made a country record. Okay, so it's not Nashville. It's not even a Ween joke gone extreme, but it's as country as the former Soft Boy whose three biggest influences could be Syd Barrett, the Beatles, and himself can get. In fact, the best tunes on Moss Elixir are the ones you could imagine Garth Brooks covering without him having to rearrange things too much. Much of the rest is Robyn Xeroxing Robyn. "Heliotrope" and "De Chirico Street" sound like leftovers from Eye and Globe of Frogs respectively; and "I Am Not Me" is "Knife" reincarnated. After the forgettable Respect, Hitchcock has put back some of the t-c-p (sock it to me, Robby).
HHH -- Michael Bertin


ROBBIE FULKS

Country Love Songs (Bloodshot)

More of that "insurgent country" stuff from Chicago's stellar Bloodshot label. Funny thing about the whole insurgent thing, though, is how much of it sounds like "real" country. I guess it's all in the attitude. However Fulks wants to label himself, he sounds pretty damn good. Some of it does have that tongue-in-cheek quality about it that separates it from true shitkickerdom, such as the opening "Every Kind of Music but Country" or the Buck Owens tribute "The Buck Starts Here" (as well as the disturbing album cover). But "Tears Only Run One Way" could just as easily have come from Ray Price or Johnny Bush, and all of it is the most two-steppable stuff I've ever heard from Bloodshot, better known for the hillbilly folk songs of Freakwater or the rock-slanted stuff of Jon Langford. And I don't know who's responsible for all the steel work (four different steel players are listed on the album), but he's a total virtuoso. Austin looks forward to a tour, Mr. Fulks.
HHH 1/2 -- Lee Nichols


BEAU JOCQUE & THE ZYDECO HI-ROLLERS

Gonna Take You Downtown (Rounder)

Blues, R&B, soul, funk, even hip-hop have all long since outgrown their regional roots and become essential parts of contemporary music. Zydeco, meanwhile, remains mired in the bayou blues of Buckwheat and CJ Chenier, stale as week-old boudin. There's no innovation going on, no thinkers who want to expand the canvas of the genre to incorporate new forms and ideas -- except for Beau Jocque. And while Gonna Take You Downtown isn't his best effort, it's nevertheless better than most zydeco albums, and in places, a real fine hip-hop/funk hybrid. Inconsistent and choppy, Downtown... features scorchers like the title track and "Alle Parti A Voi Beau Jocque" butting up against the instrumental drivel of "It's So Easy When You're Breezin'" and a cover of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" that makes Guns `n' Roses' effort of a few years back seem almost worthwhile. Yet by laying down a hip-hop groove on "Make It Stank," putting Eddie Hazel-style guitar breaks over rubboard accompaniment on "Cisco Kid," and classic James Brown-Jabo Starks interplay with drummer "Skeetah" Charlot, Beau Jocque may finally be leading zydeco out of the swamp. Where it goes now is up to him.
HH 1/2 -- Christopher Gray


SUE FOLEY

Walk in the Sun (Discovery/Antone's)

The best thing about Sue Foley's new album is not how good it is -- because it is good -- but rather how much better it is than her last one. Thing is, the last one, Big City Blues, was great. And that Walk in the Sun puts it to shame? Seems we're gonna have to re-evaluate things. First, forget the guitar-slinger angle. This ain't no guitar album. That becomes apparent by track two, "Give It to Me," on which it becomes clear what kind of album this is: it's a Toni Price album. Little Sue Foley has found herself a mighty big voice, and its country-blues-and-everything-after versatility finds a very comfortable middleground between Austin diva Price, and Bonnie Raitt. When Foley goes for blithe, as on the title cut, there's even a hint of Edie Brickell. Material is a problem, as there's several obvious throwaways here, but given that everything on Walk in the Sun bears Foley's name -- as opposed to only four originals on Big City Blues -- her growth as a songwriter is obvious. And never more so than on "Lover's Call," arguably the album's centerpiece, and my nomination for this year's version of Toni Price doing "Just to Hear Your Voice." It's that good. So is my belief that Sue Foley is just going to get better and better.
HHH -- Raoul Hernandez


SUBLIME

(MCA)

As if the Mother Love Bone dead-before-the-album scenario never happened, an all-too-telling needle reference on "Garden Grove" opens Sublime, which after the recent heroin overdose of frontman Brad Nowell, marks the punk/ska/reggae genre-bendering third album, major label debut, and presumably last new recording of this once fast-rising trio. Recorded last year in Austin, with Butthole Surfer Paul Leary behind the board, Sublime not only chronicles Southern California post-punk culture with Beastie-ish wit and brutally honest street narratives, it also cohesively incorporates dub, clever samples, and a trio-driven hardcore punch. And although Nowell's ska inflections and dancehall deliveries occasionally sound forced, save the brilliantly raggadelic "Pawn Shop" and "Burrito," the real story here is in Leary and Nowell's background grooves -- both deep enough to beef up Nowell's gangsta images and psychedelic enough to compliment the slower reggae jams. The result is a tremendously original debut, which will, tragically enough, have you searching for Sublime's last two records rather than anticipating a new one.
HHH 1/2 -- Andy Langer


GASTR DEL SOL

Upgrade & Afterlife (Drag City)

Somewhere between Louisville and Chicago resides an incestuous family of musicians whose past and present projects include Tortoise, Bastro, Slint, Palace, the Red Crayola, the Sea & Cake, 5style, Squirrel Bait, Rodan, Rachel's, and Gastr del Sol. These influential groups have treaded an ocean from punk to folk to noise and defined a movement in the American underground which forgoes formula in favor of experimentation. Upgrade & Afterlife finds this bastard son of Bastro following its own lead, alternating between ambience, mellow singer-songwriting, and weirdo jazz. From "our exquisite replica of `eternity,'" an instrumental spacecraft which receives Forties-era radio transmissions from Earth to "rebecca sylvester," an oddly constructed tune about sharks and strawberries, David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke startle the listener with a hard-to-digest malaise of soundscapes and sparse instrumentation which defies definition.
HHH 1/2 -- Taylor Holland


DAVID MURRAY OCTET

Dark Star (The Music of the Grateful Dead) (Astor Place)

Saxophonist David Murray is perhaps the most volcanic improviser in jazz. That he played twice with the Grateful Dead should solidify his credentials here. Murray's formidable Octet, replete with its swaggering five-horn front line spearheaded by the voracious Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, chews up this material with astonishing improvisational abandon. Interestingly, the album is sequenced like the second set of a Dead performance. Opening with high-energy interpretations of "Shakedown Street" and "Samson and Delilah," the set shifts to a loose, spacey reggae feel on "Estimated Prophet" and then into the showpiece "Dark Star." Beautifully rendered in its totality, there's a five-minute-long, flowing group improv that precedes the familiar opening strains of the Dead anthem. The Octet then proceeds to explore the terrain, both inside and outside, coming back to the theme every so often for grounding. A truly lovely ballad reading of "China Doll" featuring Murray and former Sun Ra Trombonist Craig Harris follows and then a balls-to-the-wall ride on the ol' warhorse, "One More Saturday Night." The set ends with a sax/guitar duet by Murray and Bob Weir, "Shoulda Had Been Me," from an upcoming stage musical about black baseball legend Satchel Paige. More than anything else, this album recalls the vibrance, color and spontaneity of the Gil Evans Orchestra playing the music of Jimi Hendrix, and as the tunes are mainly a launchpad for the group's improv, I'd recommend Dark Star first to jazz fans and then to open-minded Deadheads.
HHHH 1/2 -- Jay Trachtenberg

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