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FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

*** Warren Zevon LIFE'LL KILL YA (Artemis)

In a career that's spanned three decades, this 52-year-old veteran of the California singer/songwriter boom of the '70s has never been as prolific (10 or 12 albums in 30 years) or consistent (three or four good ones in the bunch) as many of his contemporaries. But Warren Zevon has always had more of an edge than, say, your average Jackson Browne. And when Zevon's on, like he was for 1978's Excitable Boy, he simply nails it with a potent combination of razor-sharp wit and rock-and-roll heart. Life'll Kill Ya, his first for Danny Goldberg's new Artemis label, started as a collection of rough-hewn demo recordings that, with a minimum of tinkering by producers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, have ended up as Zevon's best album in years. "I had the shit but it all got smoked," Zevon bellows gruffly in the opening cut ("I Was in the House When the House Burned Down"), setting the self-deprecating confessional tone of Life'll Kill Ya against a stripped-down backdrop of strummed acoustic guitar, harmonica, drums, and bass. Elsewhere, Zevon accompanies himself on piano and draws on a cynical sense of humor in the title track ("You've got an invalid haircut/It hurts when you smile/You'd better get out of town/Before your nickname expires") and "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" ("I can saw a woman in two/But you won't want to look in the box when I do/I can make love disappear/For my next trick I'll need a volunteer"). It takes a certain amount of patience to be a Zevon fan, but an album as direct, soulful, and, well, funny as Life'll Kill You is worth the wait.

-- Matt Ashare

**1/2 Under the Gun NOWHERE TO RUN (Mendit)

In the fickle punk underground, credibility means more than quality, and definitely more than ingenuity. Elders get props no matter how shitty their bands are, and bands with phat in-the-studio poses and impressive "shout-out" lists have their names and logos safety-pinned to leather and bondage gear from squat to street and back again. Under the Gun are nothing special, but they're the kind of band all the kids tout at those Sunday-afternoon matinees. Agnostic Front's Roger Miret, Down by Law's Dave Smalley, and Civ all make cameos, and H20, Murphy's Law, and Madball get shout-outs in various songs. A bubblegummy hard-luck collection, Nowhere To Run, comes off as a patchwork of creepy minor-chord progressions sewn to de rigueur pop hooks of the "then she left me" and "life is hard and I have no money" variety, with "wows" and "ohs" topping off the melodically succinct chord progressions. "Radio Free America" brings to mind Social Distortion's "The Creeps"; the riff from Social D's "1945" guests on "Nowhere To Run"; and "The Mirror" borrows the lilting intro of Social D's cover of "Under My Thumb." "Southside Spring" has Under the Gun trying their hand at something similar to Rancid's "Nihilism," and "Nice Night Out" is a 50/50 blend of the Ramones and Green Day. Under the Gun have clearly done their homework, but they can't resist relying on cheat sheets.

-- Lorne Behrman


The Divine Comedy is the stage upon which Neil Hannon has molded himself into the kind of pop star that one would have been more apt to run into in the early '60s than the late '90s. His oeuvre celebrates that odd moment in pop history when music-hall crooning attempted to coexist peacefully with rock and roll -- so predictably, his compositions are thick with pounding piano, brassy horns, and symphonic strings that provide an opulent setting for his theatrical tenor, spilling a libretto that switches from sugary sweet one minute to viciously wry the next. A Secret History brings together the rash of hit singles the Irish Hannon's had as the Divine Comedy in the UK over the past decade -- from the breezy absurdity of tracks like "The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count" to the searing social commentary of "Generation Sex" complete with contrived talk-show sound bites and lines like "Generation Sex/elects/the types/of guys/you wouldn't leave your kids with/then shouts 'off with their heads' if they get laid." That none of these tracks have made so much as a dent in the US market is hardly a surprise. Though there're gobs of Bacharach in the orchestrated pop of "Becoming More like Alfie," Hannon's Noël Cowardly fop-rock aesthetic is the kind of stuff we Yanks left behind when we separated from the Mother Country -- as much of a foolish idea as that may have been.

-- Erin Amar

*** Shelby Lynn I AM SHELBY LYNN (Island)

Shelby Lynn's reputation as a country-punk came not from her music -- at least not the Nashville-flavored swing of her 1993 debut -- but from her behavior. She's a natural experimenter with a personal and creative wild streak. That's boldly audible in I Am Shelby Lynn, an album that required a seven-year hiatus, her escape from Nashville, and much soul-searching. Its songs are dark and beautiful, the product of an artist creating her own fusion of country, R&B, and rock that veers toward the fringe. The knotty confusion of "Why Can't You Be?" would sound as right coming out of Tom Waits's gnarled throat as it does under Lynn's honeyed purr 'n' croon. "Your Lies" backtracks to the glory days of Phil Spector's '60s vocal extravaganzas. Songs like "Thought It Would Be Easier" and the razor-guitar-driven "Life Is Bad" poke around in the psyche's black corners, raising thorny existential issues. (Call Shelby the anti-Shania.) This CD has already been hailed as the fully realized emergence of an important artist. If that were true, "Easier" wouldn't have a cookie-cutter R&B backbone, and "Gotta Get Back" would lose the twee harmonica solo that only a studio geek could love. The truth is, Lynn is still her own work-in-progress.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Mary LaRose WALKING WOMAN (GM)

LaRose and her husband, the arranger and saxophonist Jeff Lederer, have come up with a vocal album that encompasses tradition (the Bessie Smith/Fletcher Henderson "Trombone Butter") while pushing the music's boundaries (a jazz treatment of Purcell's "Dido's Lament"). The instrumentation and arrangements are part of what hold this wide-ranging experiment together: Lederer sets LaRose's clear contralto against plush earth tones of reeds, trombones, and Hammond B-3 organ. On a tune like Led Zep's "Kashmir" (the "I've Got Rhythm" of post-rock) he uses the organ as much for barking rhythms as aquamarine sustains. LaRose claims Eddie Jefferson's vocalese as an inspiration -- writing lyrics (or wordless vocal lines) to jazz compositions and solos. She covers Jefferson's version of Johnny Griffin's "Soft and Furry," but she also digs into the high speed and hairpin turns of one of Anthony Braxton's diagram-titled tunes and fills out the images of Eric Dolphy's Monk tribute "Hat and Beard." Not everything appeals -- the wordless, expressionist interpretation of Mingus's "Pithecanthropus Erectus" (replete with monkey sounds) grates more than it has to, and there's just plain too much "jazz" in Lennon & McCartney's "Blackbird." But these are minor flaws in an integrated whole, where voice, words, ensemble detail, and imaginative soloing carry equal weight in telling the story.

-- Jon Garelick

*1/2 The Marshmallow Coast SENIORS & JUNIORS (Kindercore)

Depending upon whether you turned in your homework on time, or the teacher made you stand in a corner and wear the dunce cap, this slight-bodied debut by Music Tapes sideman Andy Gonzalez will strike you as either a charming slice of winsome escapism by the newest Elephant 6 splinter project, or something you'll want to drop a water balloon on from a very high window. Amateurish to a fault, Seniors & Juniors sounds like a hodgepodge of half-finished ideas sketched out on piano, acoustic guitar, and what sounds like flutophone (which mimics a toy choo-choo train whistle on the opener, "Off to School"). A couple of tracks manage to capture the fragile, poetic wonder of childhood ("Mashed Potato Light" and "Ancient Chinese Secret"), but simply too many of the songs sound tentative -- fearful even -- with the band akin to a Little Red Riding Hood treating the melody as if it were the Big Bad Wolf hiding near the bridge. Gonzalez's wobbly, pinched voice doesn't help -- especially when he starts things off with a few terminally twee la-la-las, setting a new standard for cuddlecore at its most cloying. In short, this sounds more like a freshman project than one made by seniors and juniors. Here's hoping the Marshmallow Coast's sophomore effort is less of a puff piece.

-- Jonathan Perry

**1/2 The Jesus Lizard BANG (Touch and Go)

Not by any means the best, but simply the final, release by one of the finest and most iconoclastic punk bands of the '90s, whose explosive emergence at the decade's dawn, subsequent weighty influence on their more commercially successful brethren, and enduring lack of commercial potential despite critical and underground recognition of their apparent genius might function as some sort of parable for the tangled narrative arc that was indie-rock. Bang collects the Lizard's singles output -- including early live sides recorded in Boston -- without adding up to anything close to a best-of. (The definitive portrait of the band, always more effective live than in the studio, remains 1994's Show, recorded before they defected for an unhappy stint at Capitol).

There are few new insights here, but plenty of poisoned pleasures: as always, singer David Yow, muffled and incorrigible, occupying a warped condition of mind (drunk? confused? certifiable?) that consistently defies translation or any apparent satisfaction; a spidery, malevolent elegance lurking amid the grime; a rhythm section as bedrock as Zeppelin, as tricky as the JB's, and as ornery as Big Black. If there's a secret revealed, maybe it's in the opening Chrome medley, which would seem to place the Lizard -- oddly, but in retrospect squarely -- in a tradition that traces back as much to Chicago's particular post-industrial nihilism as to punk per se. And although you wouldn't normally associate the Lizard with minimalism, they cover two songs by German new-wavers Trio (of Volkswagen-commercial "Da Da Da" fame) -- perhaps the hidden reservoir for Duane Denison's sophisticated guitar playing, a fussy, particular formalism he brought to material as roughly vernacular as the Dicks' "Wheelchair Epidemic" and the band's own "Deaf as a Bat."

-- Carly Carioli

*** Chuck Prophet THE HURTING BUSINESS (HighTone)

Much like Joe Henry, Chuck Prophet is a rootsy white boy getting his groove on. The San Francisco-based Prophet emerged in the '80s with paisley undergrounders Green on Red, joining the band just in time to help them shift from psychedelic fuzz guitar into more distinctly Americana territory. Though largely relegated to lead guitar back then, Prophet has since proved himself a formidable singer/songwriter. On The Hurting Business, his fifth solo album, he expands on his home brew of country-rock, swamp-rock, blues, and folk, encompassing spaghetti-Western ambiance etched with deep grooves, blue-eyed soul ballads stung with electric guitar, bits of turntable scratching, and liberal doses of Farfisa. Fortunately, though, Prophet doesn't forsake his songwriting while creating these near-cinematic atmospheres. These are well-crafted tunes, with lyrics that match. Prophet tosses them off like little daggers: "Dick Clark's got the tombstone blues" ("Diamond Jim"), and "She don't even know Elvis from El Vez" ("Apology"), certainly grounds for divorce for a diehard music fan. But most striking is Prophet's singing, a full, dusky croon that grows breathy when he reaches for the higher notes. It's a voice that belies his rumpled angel appearance, revealing the devil's glint in his eye.

-- Meredith Ochs

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