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FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

** Pharaoh Sanders

SAVE OUR CHILDREN

(Verve)

You never know with Sanders whether he's going to play something that'll make your eardrums bleed or just lie back and noodle contentedly. Children is mostly in the latter mode, a world music stew with Sanders largely loafing and a trio of percussionists -- Zakir Hussain, Trilok Gurtu, and Abdou Mboup -- doing the lion's share of heavy lifting. Add a couple of harmoniums and a synthesizer, and the accompaniment gets pretty thick -- all Sanders has to do is show up and nudge at the contours of the pretty melodies for some simulacrum of exploratory music to be achieved. So many wheels are spinning that it takes a while before you realize that nothing much is happening. Sanders does rouse himself for one song, "Kazuko," a ballad à la Coltrane, but in the context of this session his screeches sound gratuitous, a few crowd-pleasing licks for the long-time fans. Aside from that, this is mood music with a vengeance, and even on a golden opportunity like "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," he never moves his tenor much beyond the melody. It's very listenable -- the production values are good and the polyrhythmic percussion and successive drones mesh nicely -- but it would have been more interesting if the leader weren't more or less MIA.

-- Richard C. Walls


*** Long Hind Legs

FEB. 4TH-14TH, 1998

(Kill Rock Stars)

Bands from Olympia's fiercely independent labels K and Kill Rock Stars often dabble in side projects, with results ranging from intriguing to cute to what you'd expect from a kindergarten class deprived of its daily dose of Ritalin. But Long Hind Legs' 1997 debut was an anomaly. Vern Rumsey, bassist for the avant-rock trio Unwound, teamed with an anonymous friend to pay loose homage to the UK's '80s Factory sound and came up with magically moribund songs like "Numb" and "Dogs, Restrained" -- songs closer in spirit to Joy Division than anything New Order's ever served up. The two again man the synths on this new six-song EP, a whirring and dark vision that seamlessly continues the tribute and stakes out some territory of its own. The title of "Killing Distance" nearly says it all, with a haunting synth figure juxtaposed with cascading guitars; a strophic, mesmerizing beat; and spot-on tortured vocals reeling off gloomy non-sequitur poetry. "Arranged Viewing" revolves around a simple melody and three-note bass hook worthy of early OMD, while the instrumental "Like Olden Days People" gets downright spooky with its echoing electric piano. But it's "I Am a Intellectual," a bizarre mix of literary narrative, skewed vocals, and fuzzed-out riffs, that establishes the duo as something other than a mere "project."

-- Richard Martin


**** Joi Cardwell

CLUBLAND'S GREATEST HITS

(K-Tel/Cold Front)

These 14 tracks aren't clubland's greatest hits but Cardwell's. Still, Cardwell has long been one of the first-called house-music divas, and these songs tell why. She superbly sings what Al Green used to call "love and happiness," comfortably on the rhythm yet at the same time head-over-heels in it. Her vocals stand at the mid-point between the screams of glee Carolyn Crawford put into Bohannon's classic "Let's Start the Dance" and the hypnotic sigh Evelyn Champagne King made famous in "Shame." Always a wild thing but full of grace, Cardwell growls and shines in two versions of "You Got To Pray," as well as "Love and Devotion," "Run to You," and the unstoppable "Found Love" -- anthems in which she talks up a silky, soulful tallness that's one of house music's essential messages. The mixes of star DJs Junior Vasquez, Darrin Friedman, and George Morel, and of newcomers Hani and Gomi, dress Cardwell up in a silky, soulful tallness of their own. Diva style has never sounded better.

-- Michael Freedberg


**1/2 Geri Allen

THE GATHERING

(Verve)

Pianist Geri Allen has several adventurous, searching releases under her own name, and she's done stints with challenging jazz performers such as the late Betty Carter and Dewey Redman. She even played some old-school piano in Robert Altman's Kansas City. The Gathering finds her homesteading in the impressionistic territory first mapped by Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and other post-bop explorers. The Detroit native's compositions range from the edgy "Dark Prince," where former Living Coloür guitarist Vernon Reid's jagged guitar borders on violence, to gently orchestrated pieces and several cuts that can safely be called just modern jazz. Allen is in excellent company: trumpeter (and husband) Wallace Roney, bassist Buster Williams, and especially drummer Lenny White adapt to the sophisticated material and the company of a bowed seven-string bass, a trombone, and other unusual spices. Allen's own playing is fast, strong, and, for better or worse, more cohesive and gripping than The Gathering as a whole, the essence of which emerges fully only after repeated listenings.

-- Bill Kisliuk


***1/2 Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton

TRIO II

(Asylum)

To hear Emmylou Harris tell it, after she and Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton recorded this CD five years ago as a follow-up to their much-celebrated 1987 collaboration, they let it gather dust because they couldn't coordinate their schedules to promote it until now. More likely, they were hesitant to release a country album so old-school in its austerity that it would be laughed off the overproduced, rock-inflected, roots-averse country radio of the '90s. A textbook definition of "high lonesome," Trio II features 10 impeccably tasteful tunes -- most from unimpeachable country and bluegrass songwriters (including the Carter Family's "Lover's Return" and Parton's own "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," as sung by Harris), some from farther afield (Parton singing Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," Harris on Irish singer Dolores Keane's "You'll Never Be the Sun," and Ronstadt doing "Feels Like Home" from Randy Newman's pop-opera Faust), all of them as gorgeously depressing as anything Hank Williams or the Velvet Underground ever waxed. (Parton's moderately upbeat "I Feel the Blues Movin' In" is as boisterous as this collection gets.) But the quiet arrangements do show these three legendary voices to their best advantage, united in close harmonies of heartbreaking purity. Let's hope it's not another 12 years before they get their act together for Trio III.

-- Gary Susman


**1/2 Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds

LIVE AT LUTHER COLLEGE

(RCA)

Two questions come to mind regarding Matthews's latest unit-shifter. One, will his fans buy absolutely anything with his name on it? And, two, who the hell is Tim Reynolds? This "unplugged" effort is the second double live album in just over a year from the man who let his hairy beer gut out on the cover of Spin; not only that, it's an old recording that doesn't even touch upon last year's palette-broadening DMB offering Before These Crowded Streets (RCA). So why bother? Reynolds, it turns out, is why. A jazzbo who's done time with Michael Brecker and John Scofield, he nearly stole the show with his searing fusion guitar solos on the Matthews Band's previous live release, Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 (RCA). Much of his playing here is for tablature nerds only, but when Reynolds isn't trying to play faster than Al DiMeola, he manages to coax some fine Frisell-like volume swells out of his ax. As for Matthews, his famous croak is in top form on everything from impromptu scat solos to sincere balladeering like "Crash Into Me." And if his songs ain't exactly Dylan, nobody told the folks at Luther College -- or anywhere else in America, for that matter.

-- Sean Richardson


*** Cheryl Wheeler

SYLVIA HOTEL

(Philo)

Cheryl Wheeler was briefly signed to Capitol Records, who tried unsuccessfully to market her as a straight country artist back in 1990. Her sound fits more comfortably with today's alt-country/Americana demographic, and with Philo, a label that wasn't confused by her mixture of folk poetry, down-home rock, smooth blues, acoustic country, and surrealistic humor. Sylvia Hotel, her third Philo release, is full of heartfelt musings on the ups and downs of the human condition. Wheeler has a warm, throaty alto and marries forceful lyrics to simple, yet memorable, melodies. "All the Live Long Day" and "Right Way To Do the Wrong Thing" could be country hits with a bit of mainstream radio play; "His Hometown" and "Lighting Up the Mighty Mississippi" are beautiful bits of pastoral folk poetry; and "Meow," which may or may not be about a pet cat, sounds like a lounge lizard gone country. Wheeler's oddball humor is in evidence too, particularly on "Potato," a love song to the faithful tuber set to the tune of the Mexican hat dance. It sounds like a contender for instant folk song of the week.

-- J. Poet


*** Adrian Belew

SALAD DAYS

(Thirsty Ear)

Fans of the singer/guitarist's work with King Crimson and his previous solo albums may have trouble imagining what Belew's signature numbers -- "The Lone Rhinoceros," "Three of a Perfect Pair," "The Man in the Moon" -- sound like without electric guitars. After all, what initially brought Belew to fame via sideman work with Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Bowie, and others is his ability to make his instrument sound like transmissions from space, the roar of a train, the bray of a great beast. And sonic textures have remained an important part of his work; even the sole focus of his albums Desire Caught by the Tail and The Guitar as Orchestra. Well, this CD of acoustic recordings demonstrates that Belew is, at heart, a songwriter. And a damn good one, with a voice sweet enough to coax loss and ennui from his lyrics. Yet without playful turns, it wouldn't be Belew. So there are goofy gems like the percussive whack-out "Things You Hit with a Stick" and the schizophrenic short subject "Return of the Chicken" (with harp, piano, harmonica, sax, guitar, yodeling, random quips, and a duck call woven into a aural narrative). It's all more proof that Belew's one of modern pop's underrated greats.

-- Ted Drozdowski



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