I'm So Confused (Vapor)
For every new disc that appears from Jonathan Richman, there always seems to be one of two problems; either the album is too spare and unfocused (generally Richman's fault) or too slick and overproduced (the producer's error). The Cars' Ric Ocasek might not seem the obvious choice to bridge these two extremes for the fey, nasal ex-Modern Lover, but he certainly seems to have come close. Of course, Richman and Ocasek are no strangers, having both sprung from Boston's music community in the Seventies, and here the producer takes Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins' two-man-band simplicity and augments it with just the right amount of bass and light keyboards, presenting a sound that should work for both longtime fans and people who only know Richman and Larkins as the wacky folk duo from the film There's Something About Mary. As far as his compositional skills, Confused is a standout among Richman's recent efforts as well, largely showcasing the artist's emotional fallout from his recent divorce. Fortunately, Richman spoons out heaps of his wit and joie de vivre, so don't fear that the album is a downer. In fact, it might be just the right thing for when you're in the throes of a relationship gone sour. Far from a document of loneliness, listening to I'm So Confused is more like talking it out with an old friend.
3.5 Stars -- Ken Lieck
Storefront Hitchcock (Warner Bros.)
Recorded in an abandoned clothing store on 14th Street in New York, Storefront Hitchcock is Robyn Hitchcock's Stop Making Sense. It's such an obvious comparison that it's almost too easy, as both recordings are not only film soundtracks, but soundtracks to Jonathan Demme films. The major difference is that Stop Making Sense served as a greatest hits collection for the Talking Heads. Since Robyn Hitchcock has never had a hit, Storefront Hitchcock is devoid of anything familiar to all but Hitchcock fans. Even late-Eighties college radio faves like "Balloon Man" and "Madonna of the Wasps" are absent. The real worth of Storefront Hitchcock isn't the setlist, however, although it does contain sterling performances of catalog gems like "Glass Hotel" and "I'm Only You" as well as an unexpected cover of "The Wind Cries Mary." Live, Hitchcock has the remarkable ability to produce fantastic between-song narratives and stream-of-consciousness observations. Instead of "Are you ready to rock?," typical Hitchcock fare are remarks like, "If it weren't for our rib cages, there would just be spleens a go-go." Seven of the disc's 20 tracks are Hitchock's musings, ramblings, or oblique introductions, which gives Storefront Hitchcock something a normal studio recording lacks: The picture of Hitchcock not just as a musician, but as a fountain of ideas able to assemble words and phrases in ways few others can.
3 Stars -- Michael Bertin
Sol Negro (Hannibal)
Listening to this recording makes me wonder how many great artists of all kinds there are about whom we know nothing. Brazilian Virginia Rodrigues has a marvelous contralto voice, but prior to being discovered by Marcio Meireles, who cast her in a play he was directing in El Salvador, had sung publicly only in church choirs. Meireles then brought Rodrigues, whose mother was a market vendor, to the attention of Caetano Veloso, who set up the making of this album on which Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, and Djavan appear out of respect for her gifts. The compositions here come from a variety of sources. There's "Veronica" performed unaccompanied by Rodrigues, which is heard every year in the procession of Senhor Morto in Santo Amaro, and the familiar "Manha de Carnaval" from Black Orpheus. Don Caymmi contributed "Noite de Temporal," and other beautiful songs by Brazilian composers can also be heard. None, however, are taken above a comfortable medium tempo, which allows Rodrigues to do what she does best: sing in an unhurried, serene, even celestial manner. Rodrigues has a huge, sweet timbre, a fine range, accurate pitch, and an excellent sense of time, which allows her to sing unaccompanied with great security. Some of these tracks will remind listeners of medieval religious chants, and there's a reason for that: Sol Negro is worth going to church over.
5 Stars-- Harvey Pekar
Anour Brahem/John Surman/Dave Holland
Dizzy Gillespie wrote "A Night In Tunisia" about Anouar Brahem's North African home country. Brahem, a master of Tunisia's traditional music, is also a restless seeker, often working with intrepid musicians -- wherever they may be. In the case of Thimar, the master oud (lute) player joins hornman John Surman and bassist Dave Holland to form a supergroup of sorts. No, not a commercial band of straw men so often fabricated by the Machiavellian record industry, but an experimental aesthetic one. And one that succeeds; Brahem's passionate virtuosity mixes with the string gymnastics of Holland, the hardest working man in jazz bass-dom, and Surman's introspective soprano sax and bass clarinet phrases, as in the cinematic opener "Badhra," and the rainy fall afternoon painted in "Kashf." Another standout, "Talwin," finds Holland and Brahem intrepidly trading off the hypnotic ostinato. Likewise, "Waqt" lives through Surman's orbital mix of Celtic and North African serpentine phrases. Thimar is more subdued than most of Brahem's oeuvre, such as the irresistible Conte de L'Incroyable Amour, but fortunately the Tunisian savant (who is unfortunately too quiet in the mix at times) found two other musicians talented enough to plumb these emotive depths with him. Thimar doesn't evoke the emotional gamut, but be prepared to drop whatever you're doing when this trio hits one of their ardent strides. You won't have a choice.
4 Stars --David Lynch
Trio Fascination (Blue Note)
In jazz, trios tend to separate the men from the boys, so virtually every great tenor player since Sonny Rollins, who laid the gauntlet down 40 years ago with a series of stunning pianoless trio recordings, has recorded in this barebones configuration. Now, it's Joe Lovano's turn. The hefty tenorman from Cleveland has amassed a string of varied and creative recordings on Blue Note during this decade that is as impressive as anyone working in jazz today. Lovano is no stranger to the trio concept, either, having been a longtime member of drummer Paul Motian's Trio with guitarist Bill Frisell, and having recorded a little-known trio date on Enja earlier in his career. Here he gets hard-core with as good a power trio as you could assemble: Lovano, former Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones, and masterful bassist Dave Holland. The trio works as both an interactive unit and as a springboard for Lovano's probing explorations on a variety of horns. Other than a beautifully rendered turn on the evergreen "Ghost of a Chance," all the tunes here are Lovano originals including the contemplative "Sanctuary Park," which is also a vehicle for his Symbiosis Quintet, and "Studio Rivbea," a jaunty tribute to Sam Rivers' Seventies NYC avant-garde performance space. By no means an easy listen, jazz mavens will nevertheless find this trio date particularly fascinating.
4 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
Ghetto Supastar (Ruffhouse)
Now that Pras has completed the solo trifecta of the Fugees, we finally have the real score: Wylcef's content chasing Bob Marley's legacy, Lauryn yearns for the days of Aretha, and Pras just wants to be Puff Daddy (as if one weren't enough already). Unfortunately, the least obviously gifted Fugee has countered all the retro-charm of his partners' solo efforts with an album that simply sounds too modern, too slick, too calculated, and too driven by champagne and caviar dreams. Ghetto Supastar is all about the benjamins, from the heavily formatted jams tailor-made for Top-40 radio crossovers to the boring array of answering machine cameos from folks like Quincy Jones, Sting, Carly Simon, Donald Trump, and yes, Robin Leach. While the album's title track will always be one of hip-hop's great singles, the truth is any real hip-hop fan already has the Bullworth soundtrack. In fact, the only reason Ghetto Supastar might be a decent purchase is the bonus second disc of Refugee Camp Navy Seals singles -- including Wyclef's brilliant entry to the Canibus/LL Cool J fray, "What's Clef." It's everything Ghetto Supastar is not: sharp, relevant, and revolutionary (check the broken dial tone beat). What it says, that Pras still gets upstaged by Clef on his own album, is obvious: He's no Supastar, just a third wheel.
1.5 Stars -- Andy Langer
All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones (Virgin)
It's been almost four years since Swedish noise-popsters Whale unleashed their eternally catchy-cum-creepy "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe" single on an unsuspecting public, and though the band remains the same, the song does not. All Disco ... is full of crunchy, cranky electro-pop, but few of the tracks here wallow in the pure, sublime insanity of '95's We Care. Vocalist Cia continues to do her best to make mincemeat of the Cardigans, and yes, Whale is still the best anti-Abba since the Meatmen called it a day, but only tracks like the surprisingly quiet "Into the Strobe" and the abrasively stentorian "Losing CTRL" come within bludgeoning distance of past successes. A couple of tracks recall Whale's former tunefulness; the opening single, "Crying at Airports," is a slinky, trip-hoppy slice of soggy Swede heartache that recalls Hooverphonic, and a hidden, untitled mystery track at disc's end is pure Whale circa '91. On the whole, though, All Dance ... falls flat when it comes to the band's trademark out-and-out pop-stompers. Having waited four years between releases usually signifies the worst for a band, and in Whale's case this only seems to have made things a muddled, scattershot mess.
2 Stars -- Marc Savlov
Experiment Below (Mute)
Like an electrical storm in a shipyard, Hovercraft groans, echoes, and crashes like the industrial apocalypse. Building on the ambient Krautrock of last year's convulsive, isolation tank nightmare, Akathisia, this Seattle trio's second science project gone wrong, Experiment Below, lurches from the same laboratory as the group's last instrumental descent into chaos. Somewhat less brooding and subsequently more violent, Experiment Below explodes like metallic fusion, sonic sunspots such as "Anthropod," "Phantom Limb," "Transmitter Down," and particularly the adrenaline rush of "Benzedrine" aptly catalogued by their titles. In fact, individual pieces matter less here than the pulse of energy that renders the differentiation between improvisation and composition nearly impossible. For those keeping official records of Hovercraft's specifications, dash11 replaces Karl 3-30 on the drums, though nothing has been lost in the telepathy between the three vehicle pilots. If anything, Experiment Below proves that these explorations of radioactive white noise have the potential to become almost jazz-like in their spontaneous aural journeys into inner space. Progressive practitioners striving to be pioneers, Hovercraft bridges the gap between nature's fury and man's folly (technology), and in the netherworld of scientific discovery, unleashes something scary. (Hovercraft opens for Fugazi at Liberty Lunch November 23.)
3 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
The Instrumental EP (Trance Syndicate)
Trance Syndicate's final release is now also the swan song for this slightly warped Austin trio, but it doesn't come off that way at all. The Instrumental EP is a hodgepodge of home recordings and eight-track studio work that seems unfinished and lacks the assertiveness of the band's two previous albums. Nevertheless, it exudes a certain charm that belies an easy "holdover" designation. This is coming straight from the bowels of a musty rehearsal space stuffed with found mattresses and egg cartons. It's the kind of music bands make at practice when learning new songs gives way to jamming that may or may not coalesce into something substantive. Every band does this, but only Starfish had the perfectly toned evil bass lines of Ronna Era on top of the no-frills tribal rock drumming of Scott Marcus. From the slow-grind loop of "Om Mani Padma Bom" to the fast and unforgiving 1:40 of "The Day I Saw a Rocketship," the band utilizes a subtle form of pop acumen to inch these ideas beyond the muck without forfeiting visceral oomph. In a town full of bands practicing in garages, you could do a lot worse than living next door to one like Starfish.
2.5 Stars -- Greg Beets
Better Than Ezra
How Does Your Garden Grow (Elektra)
Just when Better Look for Day Jobs looked like a better moniker, the Louisiana trio that brought us "Good" way back in 1995 has unveiled a better-than-average album. In fact, this third Better Than Ezra set is centered around a thoroughly ambitious makeover -- where an electronica/trip-hop base effectively draws them away from the safety of their traditionally bland pop premise. And as cliché and day-late as electronica experimentation can be, it works here as something far more Eno-ish than Shadow or Prodigy-like; every artificial bell and whistle seems to add genuine emphasis and texture to Kevin Griffin's songwriting, which has itself made a noticeable leap from dull to catchy. The result is an album that's smart, quirky, and somehow light years more mature than previous efforts -- perhaps even enough to make Better Than Ezra's long-term prospects far better than they were. (Better Than Ezra plays Liberty Lunch November 13.)
3 Stars -- Andy Langer
Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass (Hablador)
If Ian Moore's career thus far has been about the building of a rock & roll guitar hero, then his latest release, Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass, is about the dismantling of said hero. Long blues-rock guitar jams are all but nonexistent, replaced by a stylistic and instrumental eclecticism that can at times be cause for celebration, and at others, for a scratching of the head. Mark Addison's production sheds the oft-homogenizing sheen of Moore's earlier work, and considering the breadth of sounds coming out of these 14 songs, pieces it all together nicely. While Moore is all over the place on this album, the extremes (an over-the-top rendition of Terry Allen's "Border Palace" and the singing saw duet "Now You're Gone") are tempered by the steady and stirring "Us/Them" and "Elephant Tears." Thus, where "Four Winds" is touching, "Hey Bulldog" (which, regardless of the writing credits, doesn't feel like the only Beatles cut) seems unnecessary. There's no small amount of risk in Moore's putting out an album of this nature after the long pause following 1995's Modernday Folklore, but due to the depth of his experience and knowledge of the music he plays here, the gamble was a good one, the results a definite payoff.
3 Stars --Christopher Hess
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Break out the chastity belts. Rock's biggest white-boy pimp daddies, Jon Spencer and head Afghan Whig Greg Dulli, are scratching at the back door again, ready to lay you down by the fire and make some looooove. Spencer, tricked out in his custom-built "Lovin' Machine," is asking the age-old amorous question, "Do You Wanna Get Heavy?" Dulli, meanwhile, goes the old-school route, promising "a little wine ... some Marvin Gaye" in "John the Baptist" and everything else the ladies love in "Somethin' Hot." Actually, for men who once wrote "Baby, baby you sure like to fuck!" (Spencer) and "I got a dick for a brain and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you" (Dulli), their new efforts are downright romantic. Spencer, mellowed by a happy marriage and new baby, spells it out in "Torture": "I love you so much I wish I could be with you every minute of every hour of every day, and that's torture." Awwww. Dulli is more bewitched by his newly adopted hometown New Orleans (one song is even titled "The Vampire Lanois") than by any one female in particular, but now he's begging "you can fuck my body baby, but please don't fuck my mind" on "Neglekted." Does this mean he might even call the next day? Frightening. Musically, by blending new elements into their already-familiar sounds (Spencer has various DJs cut his "songs" to shreds, while Dulli uses even more horns and chunky wah-wah guitar than usual), both men have found new ways to talk about their favorite thing: sex. And while neither musician may be as fuck-and-run as he used to be, when it comes to getting it on, both albums are much sexier than reading aloud from the Starr Report.
(Both) 3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray
Murder City Devils
Broken Bottles Empty Hearts (Sub Pop)
Deviates. Greasy-headed pyro-punks that worship all that is evil and beautiful about punk rock, reveling in the tragedy that accompanies the hard living, seeking the brilliance and duration of the shooting-star legends. Miscreants, that's what they are. The name of the Sub Pop imprint started just for them, Die Young Stay Pretty, says it all. So why does the band have to say it over and over? This record does rock, but that which is pedestrian about Broken Bottles Empty Hearts -- the unending bar chords, the played-out melodrama -- can be hard to get past. Tongue-in-cheek works, yes ("one week on the road and I'm already wrecked"), but not to the point of satire. Onstage, the confused nerd is plunged into the punk-babylon of tattoos, flaming keys, and black clothes with brain-wrenching aplomb, but that's the live show. You gotta see it. On tape, it just doesn't hit very hard, and this stable of Stooges thoroughbreds comes off more as a one-trick pony. Punk rock is the sound, the subject, and the way of life for the Murder City Devils, but the image and the energy of the stage, undoubtedly where this band lives, loses impact in the translation. (Murder City Devils open for Modest Mouse at Liberty Lunch November 19.)
2 Stars --Christopher Hess
Man of My Word (Rounder)
This, Johnny Adams' last album, ranks among his finest. Everything's working; Adams, who passed away in September, is in fine form, itself enough to recommend Man of My Word. The selection of tunes, ranging from covers (William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water," "Now You Know," which Adams learned from Little Willie John) to first-rate new material, makes for a high-quality, balanced program. The arrangements, which have the feel of the old Stax charts, aren't fancy, but complement Adams' soulful vocals well. In an era where so many soul singers are coming out of a gospel bag, it's refreshing to hear Adams, whose style combines blues with gospel influences. In fact, he's a fine straight-ahead blues singer, as "This Time I'm Gone for Good" demonstrates. Adams deserves much credit for the directness and tastefulness of his vocals; he knows how to interpret and dramatize lyrics -- check out his performance on "Even Now" to hear how much he gets from a tune. Some of Adams' virtues are lost on those who listen to music superficially, which has a lot to do with why he hasn't received more recognition. But the New Orleans singer ranks among the finest R&B artists of the past 40 years, and hopefully that's how historians will regard him.
4 Stars --Harvey Pekar
Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub
Wire to Wire (Checkered Past)
The inherent gait of Paul Burch's sophomore effort, Wire to Wire, the leisurely trot with which it shuffles through the bucolic backwoods of some small Southern town, is so pure and easy that y'almost forget it's a country album. Which is about the worst thing you can say about the fine follow-up to the Nashville-based performer's noteworthy debut, Pan American Flash, released earlier this year. More like an old-time folk compilation of lullabies, Wire to Wire is a winner right out of the gate with "Winner's Circle," which opens what Burch describes as a "string of episodes that takes place in time from sundown to sundown." The bold proclamation of "standing in the winner's circle" might seem a tad boastful at the beginning of any album, but when gentle rural rockers like "Borrowed and Broke" and Webb Pierce's "Drifting Texas Sand," featuring Burch's smooth, friendly tenor and Paul Niehaus' soft caressing slide (both musicians are in the avant-jugband collective Lambchop), rock you back and forth like you were drinking lemonade on your sweetheart's front porch, there's no question why odds were 5-1 in his favor. At the end, to find Burch's washing down a "Long Tall Glass of Water" with Ranger Doug's lonely yodel and Ray McLain's fly-away fiddle, it only makes sense that Wire to Wire was recorded live with hardly any overdubs. He beat Nashville by a mile.
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Kool Trash (Fuel 2000/MCA)
It's been 15 years since the Plimsouls' last album, although the reformed band has toured and contributed to the soundtracks for Speed and Heavy. A decade and a half removed from the Los Angeles band's heyday, group leader Peter Case is a respected singer-songwriter, and has become a really good guitar player, while original lead guitarist Eddie Muñoz and original bassist/singer Dave Pahoa have both also improved. New drummer Clem Burke (Blondie), meanwhile, is the best Keith Moon-style drummer in rock. It's taken nearly two years to get a domestic release for Kool Trash, since U.S. labels simply won't sign 40-year-olds anymore, and to be fair, there's no obvious radio hit like "A Million Miles Away." Song for song, though, this may be the band's strongest album to date. From the Who-like opener, "Playing With Jack," a cautionary tale about Case's ex-Nerves bandmate Jack Lee, to the raucous closer, "Not of This World," which manages to musically quote at least a half-dozen songs by the Kinks, Pretty Things, and Rolling Stones, Kool Trash is one of the most exciting and invigorating slabs of loud rockin' R&B in quite a while.
3 Stars -- Kent Benjamin
Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach
Painted From Memory (Mercury)
The billing on the cover of Painted From Memory reads "Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach," but it ought to be the other way around, because the compositions on the album are dominated by Bacharach's signature melodies. Costello, however, is not a silent partner, and Painted From Memory is not the usual crop of breezy love songs that longtime Bacharach collaborator and lyricist Hal David helped pen. Despite the sugary orchestration -- the lush strings, the omnipresent flugelhorn -- these songs have an edge absent from Bacharach's successful confections of the Sixties and Seventies. That shouldn't be too surprising, as the post-punk poster boy has written some of the most hateful songs ever. What is surprising is how naturally Costello fits with one of the primary purveyors of the music he and his ilk rebelled against, and the top-notch quality of the overblown pop that the partnership has produced. Chief among them are the regret-laden "Tears at the Birthday Party," the charming romance of "The Sweetest Punch," and the bleak "God Give Me Strength" (originally from the 1996 film, Grace of My Heart). The album is mostly Bacharach; but instead of sounding like he's following in the footsteps of Dionne Warwick or B.J. Thomas as the hired voice, Costello, with his razor-sharp pen here dulled slightly to fit the occasion, has helped produce some truly unique additions to the vast Bacharach catalog.
3.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
In My Life (MCA)
The Beatles song title that comes to mind first after listening to this swan song effort from that band's producer is "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" -- preferably pointed at one's own temple. After turning down the surviving Beatles' request to produce their cobbled-together "new" recordings for the Anthology project, Martin chose instead to go out with a bang via this horrendous boondoggle: an entire album of celebrities "interpreting" the works of the most influential band of the rock era. While Rhino Records' recent collection of stars shooting down the works of Lennon & McCartney relished their foulness, Martin's folly lauds its perpetrators, turning a deaf ear to their utter awfulness. Goldie Hawn giggles and coos her way through "A Hard Day's Night" like the former teenager she is (she and Martin actually met in Austin to fit this chirrupy debacle into their schedules), Jim Carrey presents an out-of-control "I Am the Walrus" that makes you appreciate his version of "Somebody to Love," and Sean Connery closes out the whole thing with a pontification on the title track that threatens to out-overact the legendary William Shatner version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds": "Therre arre plashesh I rrememberr, All my life, though shome haff changed. Shome forreverr, not forr betterrrrr ..." That includes this one, Mr. Bond. Bang bang, shoot shoot me. Please.
(No stars) -- Ken Lieck