A beatific collection of lightly frazzled jangle-gems from former Miracle Legion head honcho.
Is there a renaissance going on that I don't know about? Suddenly, we've got all these singers dropping names like Tim Buckley and Harry Nilsson in their bio pages, and before you can say, "Me and My Arrow," my mailbox is stuffed with honey-sweet sounds (Ron Sexsmith, Joseph Arthur, David Mead) that threaten to smelt all my gnarly cynicism into delirious taffy. Ex-Miracle Legion totem Mark Mulcahy pours out the heart-worn Butterworth on SmileSunset, revealing a confidence and angular depth to his voice that I hadn't been previously aware of. His fluttery whisper on "The Way That She Really Is" sounds nothing short of devastating in its naked revelation. Then along comes "Until I Say So," in which he sports a laugh-clown-laugh cabaret delivery that, despite its flamboyant dressing, is no less honest. Frankly, this is more like it. I'm quite enjoying the tiny, determined wave of performers who can actually sing and begin to utilize the many Swiss Army functions of their glorious voices. Then again, guys like Richard Davies and Jason Falkner are still out there somewhere, looking for any port in the storm. Godspeed, lads. John Chandler
PAUL BLEY, EVAN PARKER, BARRE PHILLIPS
Sankt Gerold (ECM)
Free-jazz masters retreat to monastery, produce sacred document, receive thanks and praise.
For some musicians, "free improvisation" is mostly a license for uncontrolled freak-outs, in which he who shrieks loudest and longest is the master of the stage. These three ECM veterans show how to use freedom for a more complicated catharsis that's far more exhilarating. The 12 performances, or "variations," that make up the disc—five by the trio, seven done as solos—were recorded live at the Sankt Gerold monastery in the Austrian Alps, and the setting yielded unusually vivid moments of introspection. The musicians play off the mountain air as intently as they play off each other; silence is their volume pedal and space the effects board. They exploit every sound-making quality of their instruments: Parker popping and sucking on the mouthpiece, Phillips flapping his bow against the neck of the bass, Bley plucking the piano wires or suffocating them as he strikes the keys. The trio's versatile mimicry is such that at certain moments it becomes difficult to distinguish the instruments. Parker doesn't quite muster the coloristic range of his partners, tending to be more beholden to a few "effects," but his circular breathing cycle of squawks and peals, like a bird in the monastery rafters, is inspiring. Meanwhile Bley and Phillips outdo even their usual strange and conflicted beauty. Sure, nobody goes totally "wild." But that's part of the freedom. Mark D. Fefer
Just Enough Education to Perform (V2)
Latest batch of Britpoppers yearning for Yankee acceptance. Next!
Here we are, fast approaching two and a quarter centuries of independence from the Union Jack, and still there's a new kid vs. old fart dichotomy. Take your rock 'n' roll bands. Start yourself up a Faces-esque combo here in these shiny new United States and you're liable to be branded retro, outta touch, or the Black Crowes. But do the same thing in Merry Ol' and you're heralded as a keeper of the flame, one who's unafraid to mine tradition in the face of trends. Which brings us to Stereophonics, three blokes who notch hits across the Atlantic but who've yet to conquer the ex-Colonies. Just Enough Education to Perform is a pleasant enough endeavor, circa 1975 (dig that electric piano). Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kelly Jones plumbs the world about him and finds some decent notions, like the Brinks driver who can't resist temptation in "Everyday I Think of Money," or "Step on My Old Size Nines," which pairs "When I'm 64" wonder with some Neil Young-style harmonica. But Jones also has a penchant for landing himself in musical and lyrical ruts. Witness the subject-verb, subject-verb broken record of "Have a Nice Day," the hopscotch through history "Nice to Be Out" (did no one learn from "We Didn't Start the Fire"?), and the tediously trippy ending to "Mr. Writer." Chris Nelson
THE EX MODELS
Dischord-ant artsy fartsies ponder, "Be an Ex Model or just rock like one?"
The four Jersey boys in the Ex Models have a musical mission: "Make music that would challenge the idea of what a song is supposed to be." And while it's a cool—albeit clich餭-concept, the band's debut doesn't push as many boundaries as they undoubtedly intended. Sure, their art-rock rickety-rack rejects the conventional verse-chorus-verse and embraces abrasive time changes, but that's not revolutionary so much as ordinary these days. Which ain't to say Other Mathematics is a failure. On the contrary, these hot-wired live wires' staccato-rock raises a glorious ruckus, with as much invested in the tense 'n' taut sound of today's Dischord scene as in the manic, new wave energy of Devo and Wire. With siblings Shahin and Shahryar Motia fronting, the band's stutter-muttered vocals shriek and squeak throughout the album's 13 speed-kill pills, spitting out manifestos like "Rock and roll can't be made no more!" And though they never back up their claims that rock is dead, that's presumably only because they're too busy trying to recreate today's traditional song structure. They haven't done it yet, but in an age when Crazy Town's "Butterfly" can still manage to hit it big, you can't fault the Ex Models for trying. Jimmy Draper