You Coulda Walked Around the World (Rainlight)
On first listen, this collection sounds like a sparsely performed and produced acoustic folk album recorded by someone with an interesting, Dylan-like voice who knows a bit about country music. Subsequent listens, however, reveal layers of meaning and sound, the lyrics unfolding to encompass the spiritual elements of the natural world about which Hancock sings, the lone guitar and occasional harmonica being ample accompaniment for his words. Hancock is an enigmatic poet whose songs stick with you, lyrics recurring and melodies resurfacing long after the CD is off. Wisdom is often laid out in a manner so simple that it seems like foolishness -- every song here being rife with this rare sagacity. "Chase" is a perfect example of this. Though you wait for them, there are no conclusions, only possibilities as endless as the river. "Hidin' in the Hills" is a similar examination of the human (Texan) condition, a series of statements about how what one man does somehow ties together all of humanity. The river running through Hancock's work is the blood in his veins and the melody in his songs. It's the gentle but unflinching honesty of nature taking its course -- truth and beauty made plain. And, really, what else is there?
4 stars -- Christopher Hess
THE DELTA 72
The Soul of a New Machine (Touch and Go)
Plumbing the mystery of soul is risky business. The sounds of Stax, Chess, Fame, Hi, King, Excello, and Atlantic aren't simply bargain-table trinkets at some end-of-century musical yard sale; they're singular expressions of a specific state of mind, one where the urge to dance and the urge to pray often mingle perilously in the same groove. Such intensely personal, yet inherently universal, music took its inevitable toll on all who would master it, from Sam Cooke to Rick James, and as times became more "modern," the raw emotions fueling soul's fire have mutated into the cold production science of Babyface and R. Kelly. Philadelphia's The Delta 72 are one of the few contemporary bands attempting to repair the damage, but on their second album The Soul of a New Machine, their intentions exceed their execution. Their hearts are in the right place -- as are their organ fills, guitar scratching, and rhythm breaks -- but the album is still a deconstructed collage of almost-random riffs and patterns, with not enough of that sticky stuff that penetrates the core of the libido. True soul compels its listeners to find something (or someone) to rub their bellies up against. The Soul of a New Machine just isn't down & dirty enough. Still, at least The Delta 72 is trying.
2 stars -- Christopher Gray
SALT `N' PEPA
Brand New (London)
Salt `n' Pepa aren't just about being the most successful female rap group, though their metamorphosis from street-fashioned homegirls to buffed-up babes might indicate otherwise. They're not even about phat beats, shout-outs, or who's in the house. No, brothers and sisters, Salt `n Pepa have a new message for us, and it's that after thanking the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, it's okay to get down. On their first album since 1993's incendiary Very Necessary, Cheryl "Salt" James, Sandy "Pepa" Denton, and Deidra "Spin" Roper strut their stuff all down the line, throwing down the gauntlet on the first track, "R U Ready," and standing up for the Lord at the end with guest Kirk Franklin & Sounds of Blackness. And there's no pussyfooting here, either; the girls want what they want: "I like the gentle man with the gentle hand/I want the baby carriage and the marriage and the whole thing," sings Spin on "Do Me Right." They are also up to their old hip-grinding tricks on "Boy Toy" and "Say Ooh," with Queen Latifah and Mad Lion stepping up to the mike for "Friends." Brand New carries familiar S&P themes -- men who behave right are fun; men or women who don't behave right aren't; have fun but protect yourself, girlfriend -- but the message of love now carries an even more spiritual tone. Could a collaboration with Al Green and the Staple Singers be far off?
3 stars -- Margaret Moser
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER
Dear Ella (Verve)
As with nature, music is in a constant state of regeneration. For every fallen John Coltrane there's a James Carter, for every departed Miles Davis, a Terence Blanchard. Sometimes it takes generations to fill a hole, but new trees sprout every day. One forest in need of re-seeding has long been the Satin Doll woods, where craters left by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald still gape. Only recently has Cassandra Wilson helped fill the gap, and now with Dear Ella, Dee Dee Bridgewater is ready to take her side. Following '95's excellent Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, and last year's even better Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album, Bridgewater's latest project tributes Ella Fitzgerald, and like the late singer's string of songbooks in the Fifties and Sixties (Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Mercer) Dear Ella is dead on the mark. Bridgewater was born to sing songs associated with Fitzgerald ("Mr. Paganini," "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "How High the Moon"), because even though composers like Gershwin, Porter, and Ellington got the songwriting credits, Fitzgerald was the spiritual owner of these songs. With her broad, clean tone, a command of voice and music, and a smart sultriness that evokes Sarah Vaughan, Bridgewater possesses a part of Fitzgerald that will serve her well as she tends and grows jazz's magical garden.
3.5 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
The 4-Track Manifesto (Lava/Atlantic)
David Garza knows all too well that first impressions are everything. In Austin, his name still carries collegiate Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom baggage, and almost solely because he was first seen singing about fishsticks, Garza's decade of prolific recording and ambitious liveplay hasn't done much to improve his youthful reputation. Now, obviously aware of his clean national slate, Garza has pulled off a casual, homespun, 4-track recorded, one-man-band, "hi-how-are-ya?" 5-song EP that says hello with a band, but sets some dangerous precedents in the process. Will Garza's full-length debut feature a track half as catchy and anthemic as "Disco Ball World" or a ballad as sonically sharp as "Perfect Tear"? Can Garza's studio efforts match the hypnotic drum-machine simplicity of "Too Much" or the Eno-ish textures of "Floataway"? And once you've come up with a drinking-song-cum-relationship metaphor as good as "Another Shot," what else is there left to tackle anyway? The answers aren't due until spring, but here's betting more than a few Austinites use the time to absorb this 20-minute EP and re-evaluate their impression of David Garza just in time to claim `I liked him back when.' (The 4-Track Manifesto is only available through the Internet at http://www.eden.com/~wideopen)
4 stars -- Andy Langer
Heaven Sent (Emperor Jones/Trance Syndicate)
Jad Fair and Co.'s first album for Emperor Jones is precisely the sort of ambitious, sprawling project that would send all but the most adventurous label honchos into cardiac arrest. Clocking in at 61-plus minutes, the title track is a paean to (slowly) falling in love that makes "Dazed and Confused" sound premature by comparison. It's a dreamy, meandering work based on a repetitious Galaxie 500-style strum that weaves in and out of your consciousness. Flurries of psyched-out guitar, vacuum-like sound effects, and digital delay alter the mood of the song about every 10 minutes. Fair's distant, nasal couplets rain down with a frequency that almost keeps you from appreciating their singular cleverness. The next nine songs all reprise bits of "Heaven Sent," but comically, none are more than two minutes long. Of those, "A Fine Line" contains the album's most unforgettable lyric: "It was a fine line/Hand me a Phillips head screwdriver/You are my valentine/Let's watch MacGyver." The way in which Fair strings together disparate elements to create a sense of child-like wonder gives this album a warmth that is simultaneously familiar and obtuse.
3.5 stars -- Greg Beets
Death to the Pixies (Elektra)
The Pixies are dead. Long live the Pixies? Well, that would depend on if you're already obsessed with this short-lived but influential band. Did you battle with your friends over whether the Steve Albini-produced Surfer Rosa was superior to the band's pop masterpiece Doolittle? Did you give a damn about the albums that followed? Did you see their pathetic, who-gives-a-shit live performances? All these questions must be asked before you can determine if Death to the Pixies is your cup of sliced eyeball. Necessities like Kim Deal's "Gigantic" and the bulk of the key tracks of Doolittle are on the first "hits" disc, as are the better numbers from the lesser later albums (after which the band wisely called it quits). Disc two, a live show from 1990, provides fodder for those who want slightly different takes of their faves, but keep in mind that this was not a group who kept a lot of brilliant songs hidden and unreleased. All in all, repackaging the first two albums along with the bonus track-laden singles from the declining releases would've made a much more fitting requiem.
2.5 stars --Ken Lieck
Early Music: Lachrymae Antiquae (Nonesuch)
One of the gorgeous liner note pictures from the boldly dynamic San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet's latest album is of a cracked glass plate photo of the moon taken in 1885; the random cracks perfectly frame the crescent moon, and the descriptive writing on the plate's top and bottom is backward, rearranging the point of view so that the moon gazes upon a cracked earth. This haunting black and white photo is a perfect complement to the 22 mostly medieval, pre-baroque compositions herein. Famed Estonian composer Arvö Pärt's "Psalom" is a good example of the sometimes dual nature of this album: It's ancient yet inviting, sparse but intricate, familiar yet challenging. "Using the Apostate as His Tool," written in 9th-century Constantinople, unfurls slowly, yet stunningly, like a morning glory in an early-day sun bath. The quartet, consisting of a cello, two violins and a viola, is world renowned for their unique musical pairings and intrepid interpretations so it's appropriate that a recording of church bells ringing from a Requiem Mass performed by French monks ends the album. As with the entirety of Early Music: Lachrymae Antiquae, the effect is simple but moving, ancient but timeless.
4 stars -- David Lynch