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By Stewart Mason

JANUARY 10, 2000: 

Prefab Sprout The 38-Carat Collection (Kitchenware/Columbia)

After releasing all of two new albums in the '90s, the convoluted masterpiece Jordan: The Comeback and the quietly lapidary Andromeda Heights, Prefab Sprout have released the second stopgap compilation of their 15-year career. This 38-track collection not only supplants 1992's A Life of Surprises, it accurately summarizes the best work of singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon.

McAloon, a painstaking perfectionist equally influenced by Jimmy Webb, Paul McCartney, Hank Williams and Cole Porter, first appeared in the company of similar UK songwriters like Lloyd Cole and Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame. Prefab Sprout's debut single, "Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)," and their first album, Swoon (represented by four tracks, including the brilliant single "Don't Sing" and the oblique piano ballad "Cruel"), are strange, knotty records, filled with non sequiturs, religious imagery and odd humor, which showed McAloon's promise without necessarily fulfilling it.

McAloon quickly outpaced all his rivals with 1985's classic Two Wheels Good, quite possibly the finest album of the decade and one of the few '80s albums that doesn't sound dated in the least nearly a decade and a half on. A whopping eight of the album's 11 tracks appear here, though somehow the brilliant, jazz-inflected "Hallelujah" is missing. After quickly recording a rough-edged, almost demo-like followup, Protest Songs, which remained unreleased until 1989 (three tracks featured here), McAloon released his only disappointing record, From Langley Park to Memphis. Though it contained Prefab Sprout's biggest UK and U.S. hits, "The King of Rock and Roll" (also known as the "Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque" song) and "Cars and Girls" respectively, the seven tracks here are the collection's low point, sounding peculiarly slick and soulless in this otherwise remarkable company.

Though the seven of Jordan: The Comeback's 19 intricate, beautiful tracks are among the collection's best, particularly "Looking For Atlantis" and "Jesse James Bolero," that album's suitelike structure means the songs sound somehow reduced out of context.

Conversely, the five tracks from Andromeda Heights, including the low-key Beatle homage "Electric Guitars" and the stunning title track, possibly the finest thing McAloon has ever written, gain luster in this new setting, avoiding the consistency of mood which slightly diminished that album.

There are no previously-unreleased tracks, B-sides or true rarities on The 38-Carat Collection, which is a shame, but it's a sterling introduction to Prefab Sprout's masterful form of quirky but quietly brilliant pop. Rumor has it there will be a new album in the spring as well.

The Essex Green Everything Is Green (Elephant 6/Kindercore)

Ho hum, another terrific Elephant 6 album. This Brooklyn quintet features Jeffrey Baron of The Ladybug Transistor, alongside soft-pop scene-ster Sasha Bell. While their alternating vocals and devotion to the quieter side of '60s pop recalls the Apples In Stereo more than any other E6 band, songs like the pastoral title track, the more angular "Primrose" and the multi-part "Tinker" owe more to both Baron's main band and the art-pop experimentalism of Richard Davies. The winsome "Big Green Tree" and the tongue-in-cheek sitars and flutes of "Sixties" are pure Elephant 6 playfulness. Dig it.

The Van DeLeckis Ebum Shoobum Shoobum (Permanent Press)

The second collaboration by North Carolina singer-songwriters Bryan Shumate and Jamie Hoover (also leader of the glorious Spongetones) beats their debut all to hell. All 13 songs -- including a cover of Bob Lind's folk-pop "Elusive Butterfly" and the silly unlisted track "R.E.M." -- are balanced on the knife-edge between invention and classic (some would say retro) pop forms that characterize the best power pop. As good as upbeat tunes like "Nurse Ratched" and "Diane" are, it's low-key tracks like the Radio Free Santa Fe-ready "Ten Good Days" that really shine. Marshall Crenshaw and Matthew Sweet fans should take note.

Jules Verdone Diary of a Liar (Q Division)

Despite the usually-masculine name, Jules Verdone a she -- a Baltimore-born, Boston-based singer/songwriter/guitarist with a knack for emotional detail and dry wit (see the excellent "Everything's Your Fault") in her first-person lyrics. Musically, she favors straightforward guitar pop somewhere between, say, Matthew Sweet (minus the rock-god posturing) and Holly Beth Vincent (with less aggression). The songwriting is not as consistent as it might be, with killers like "Through My Teeth," "Dumb Rock Song" and "Baltimore or Less" sharing space with two or three songs, like "Debt," that are a bit overlong and underdone. Overall, though, it's an impressive debut.

Dusty Springfield Dusty In London (Rhino)

It's sad but typical that it wasn't until Dusty Springfield died earlier this year that most people realized just how brilliant a singer she was, and she was truly one of the best. The female epitome of blue-eyed soul, Springfield could bring startling passion and depth of emotion to even the most hackneyed material, which sadly is a problem she faced more and more during the period chronicled on this excellent 24-track compilation.

As Jim Pierson's enlightening liner notes explain, during the '68-'71 period that Springfield was signed to Atlantic in the states, that label preferred to record their own material with her, but she was still signed to Philips in the rest of the world. The result was that Dusty released several albums and singles during this era that never came out in the U.S., and Dusty In London collects the best of these heretofore obscure (to American ears) tracks.

Most of these tracks are covers, and they're simply the definitive versions: "Piece of My Heart" shows Janis Joplin up as the tuneless bellower she was, "How Can I Be Sure" outpaces the Rascals for cool atmosphere, the two Bacharach/David tunes are typically magnificent, and the surprising pair of Brazilian-pop tracks by Gilberto Gil ("Morning") and Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Come for a Dream") are as good as anything Astrud Gilberto ever did. The masterpiece is Springfield's heartbreaking rendition of Randy Newman's bleak "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," one of the finest performances of her career.

Not all of the material is up to Springfield's standards, but there's no outright howlers, either. Completists might want to seek out the original vinyl, but for the rest of us, Dusty In London is more than enough to convince anyone of Dusty Springfield's interpretive genius.

Jilted John True Love Stories (Castle)

Though Graham Fellows is today best known to UK audiences as struggling cabaret singer John Shuttleworth and revisionist rock historian Brian Appleton (who claims to be personally responsible for every musical development since the '50s), the Manchester-born actor will forever be linked in musical minds with his late-'70s creation Jilted John, whose eponymous 1978 single was a top 5 hit and an all-time punk-pop classic forever enshrined for its unforgettable "Gordon is a moron!" chorus.

True Love Stories, finally reissued on CD complete with four bonus tracks, is one of the finest concept albums ever, a musical faux autobiography that manages to be very funny and occasionally quite sad as well. Chronicling the romantic and social misadventures of an awkward adolescent in a charmingly adenoidal Mancunian drawl, the songs are lyrically dead-on and musically wonderful. The hilarious "Baz's Party," the downright sorrowful closer "Goodbye Karen" and "Jilted John" itself, in both the album version and its far superior, punkier single version, particularly stand out. Impressive both as a social narrative and as a killer pop album equally in debt to the Buzzcocks and the Bonzo Dog Band, True Love Stories is a peculiarly English classic no doubt highly influential to arch '90s Britpoppers like Pulp, Momus and Blur.

Steve Barton The Boy Who Rode His Bike Around the World (Sleepless)

More than a decade after the lamentable breakup of San Francisco's dark-edged jangle-pop masters Translator (you still hear the brilliant "Everywhere That I'm Not" on '80s retrospectives), co-leader Steve Barton has finally released his first solo album. Reuniting all of the band in various combinations, this is basically the best Translator album since 1982's Heartbeats and Triggers. Favoring a moody low-key feel even on relatively upbeat tracks like the sunny "Pop Star Shine" and the propulsive "Cuban Heel Boots," Barton's songwriting is varied and skillful, with the manic "Hesitation Street" and the chilling "This Dim Light" particularly standing out. E-mailing Steve at sbmusics@aol.com is for now probably the easiest way to get this album. Which you should.

Various Artists Twist Again Au Cine (PlayTime)

Jeez, some people in the mid-'60s just went wacky. Heavily influenced by the "youthquake" culture shift, the newfound sexual permissiveness and (mostly) the James Bond flicks, mainstream French cinema moved into a freewheeling era of hyperkinetic and often very silly films that looked like Technicolor even in black and white. Twist Again Au Cine collects 28 theme songs from these films, none previously available on CD, and there's an uninhibited joy to these songs that's almost impossible to imagine in these irony-filled times.

Even the ballads are somehow peppy, but tracks like Michel Legrand's "Tendre Voyou" and Genevieve Grad's delirious "Douliou Douliou St. Tropez" are guaranteed to make you giggle yourself silly. Equally appealing is Mirelle Mathieu's slinky version of Bacharach/David's "The Look of Love" en Francais. Better known to U.S. ears are Petula Clark, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, and even The American Breed (yes, the "Bend Me Shape Me" guys), whose goofy "The Brain" makes me wish "Mystery Science Theater 3000" had lasted long enough to tackle the movie it comes from. Twist Again Au Cine is a nonstop delight.

Stereolab Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra)

Stereolab detractors often claim that all the band's albums sound alike. While it's true there's a stylistic cohesion to each individual Stereolab release, the stylistic progression from album to album is also obvious, making this south London quintet's career rather fascinating to view as a whole.

So where did they go this time? Well, the Brazilian influence that was hinted at on 1997's Turn On (guitarist Tim Gane and drummer Andy Ramsay's side project with longtime Stereolab collaborator Sean O'Hagan) and developed on the same year's Dots and Loops is out in full force here. The polyrhythmic instrumental opener "Fuses" is overtly influenced by Jobim's Black Orpheus soundtrack, and several other tracks, particularly the joyous "People Do It All the Time," the first single "The Free Design" (named after a cultily-adored soft-pop vocal trio of the '60s) and the breathtakingly lovely closer "Come and Play in the Milky Night" (featuring some of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's most beautiful harmonies ever) revel in a more jazz-inflected version of the bossa nova bliss of earlier Stereolab albums like 1994's classic Mars Audiac Quintet.

Stereolab's first several albums featured a taste for lengthy one-chord drones driven relentlessly forward by the monomaniacal pulse of '70s krautrockers like Neu!, a style the band has all but abandoned here, with the exception of the aptly-titled "Strobo-Acceleration." The multi-part "Caleidoscopic Gaze" and the 11-minute (17 minutes on the double-disc vinyl) minimalist experiment "Blue Milk" recall the structures of 'Lab classics like "Jenny Ondioline," but they lack those earlier records' somewhat obsessive-compulsive quality. This is not a bad thing, but I can see why some longtime Stereolab fans might miss it. Personally, I'm thrilled that they've avoided the trap of simply remaking Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements over and over.

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