A man of consistent sorrow.
"Treading water at the deep end of the bar" in a place that "could make Fellini look like ring around the road," cactus-country crooner Mark Insley raises the curtain on his sophomore solo effort from the creature comforts of a saloon stool. And then he's off again, tooling the forlorn trails of Arizona, New Mexico, and the Old West with nine bittersweet short stories of anxious romance and hereditary heartbreak. With a whiskey-soaked twang that recalls both Guy Clark and Richard Buckner, Insley's emotion spills from the unimpeded melodies: steel guitar, Wurlitzer piano, Hammond organeven the lid of a Weber grill. Crooning harmonies from Claire Muldaur (daughter of folkie Geoff) augment several standouts: the midlife Jayhawks-y "Running Back to You," a balls-out honky-tonker "Meat, the Devil," and the love trilogy "Heart Out in the Snow," where Insley visits love-lost calamity from Daytona to Richmond, Missoula to Coeur d'Alene. By last call's ballad "Fade Away," tears drop in Insley's beer: "Some fade away/Some you never see/Some carry on like me," and by closing time, he quarters up Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me (I've Got Someone to Kill)" and thanks us for listening to his troubles. Don't give up your bar stool. Belly up to the deep end, drop a five-spot, and re-cue Supermodel to track one. The second journey's even better. SCOTT HOLTER
If VH-1 had a TRL.
As the oblique, cocky frontman of Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch decorated the band's dark, meandering, psychedelia-tinged pop with a cool, dramatic air. He leaped octaves with a seemingly effortless flair and painted his velvety vocals over the highly imaginative guitar work of Will Sergeant. Ah, the '80sand, sure, the '90s and the '00s too, but I think we're all in agreement about which of those decades saw the band's best work. At any rate, having long since ditched his iconic mop of frizzy hair and black trench coat, Mac is back with his third full-length solo album, and this time he's got Coldplay's Chris Martin singing backups on the first single. "Love in Veins," like most of the songs on Slideling, is far more triumphant and optimistic than trademark Echo tunes like "Killing Moon." The years have been good to McCulloch; he's reflective and content, and, if "Baby Hold On" is any indication, he's also very much in love. And, it would seem, more enamored than ever of the keyboards. Cheri James' often simplistic lines are almost always placed up front, often ringing with a thick vintage warble, other times wavering thinly like a wedding reception band's electric piano. Crisp and streamlined, these songs have been carefully crafted to fit within regulation pop standards. While "High Wire" smacks of the Wilco/Billy Bragg collaborations and "Kansas" might be a direct descendent of Oasis' "Wonderwall," more obvious references points like latter-day Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen are never far from mind. LAURA CASSIDY
NICK LUCA TRIO
Moody roots from seasoned session hand.
Nick Luca is the well-known Tucson-based multi- instrumentalist who's served as a regular studio sideman for, and frequent touring partner with, both Giant Sand and Calexico. He's also been an in-demand session player for the numerous artistsamong them, Neko Case, Steve Wynn, and Richard Bucknerwho've made the pilgrimage to the Old Pueblo in order to record at Wavelab Studios, where Luca works as an engineer. Little Town is Luca's first waxing under his own name, and while there are some passing similarities to Calexico and Giant Sand, in particular a familiar psych/jazz/noir vibe, it sounds like neither of those groups. Some of the most interesting moments are, oddly, the least strident. For example, the appropriately titled "Mind Walk," with its layered beats, ornate piano, and barely-audible background voices, suggests a more minimal Massive Attack, and the elegant vibraphone/accordion/piano/strings arrangement for "Lonely," paired up with Luca's whispery vocal, sounds like a moody track the Bad Seeds might work up while waiting for Nick Cave to show. And yes, the overriding ambience is one of brooding and reflection, for even the relatively upbeat tunes (the low-key soul-funk of "Past Away," the Beatles-esque "Psychedelic Haze") still convey a kind of nocturnal wooziness that is hardly characteristic of a quote-unquote "desert rock" album. In that regard, Luca has carved himself a rather unique little spot under not only the bad crazy sun but its equally luminous nighttime counterpart, the Sonoran moon. FRED MILLS