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By Michael Henningsen

MARCH 8, 1999: 

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach Painted from Memory (Mercury)

It sounds like a bizarre combination if you aren't already a fan: The guy who wrote "Radio Radio" collaborating with the guy who wrote "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head"? But those who enjoy the work of both immediately realized its potential. Costello's erudite, sometimes bitter lyrics have always shown a huge influence from Bacharach's erudite, bitter, '60s partner Hal David, and early works like "Oliver's Army" and 1982's gorgeous Imperial Bedroom aspired to Bacharach-like sophistication.

Painted from Memory is a flawless combination of beautiful melodies, cunning arrangements, exquisite lyrics and remarkable singing. Costello's voice strains and cracks in spots, but the result recalls the wracked, lived-in beauty of Billie Holiday's last few years. Bacharach's melodies more than match Costello's contributions, from "Toledo" (recalling the easy grace of Bacharach's classic Dionne Warwick sides) to the dramatic rise and fall of the Broadway-like "God Give Me Strength." Collaborations between giants often disappoint (see Costello's work with Paul McCartney a decade ago), but Painted from Memory finds two of pop's geniuses at the top of their ability. ¡¡¡¡¡

Howe Gelb Hisser (V2)

There's an excellent album buried in this sprawling collection of solo tracks by the leader of Tucson's Giant Sand. Recorded while the rest of the band were busy with their Calexico project, Hisser features super-lo-fi Mountain Goats-style guitar and voice pieces that sound like Gelb is making them up as they go along, moody near-psychedelic ballads not unlike Lisa Germano (who guests here) and, in places, Neutral Milk Hotel-like experimental pop. Something for everyone, then, and the only style he seems to avoid is Giant Sand's proto-alt.country. However, at 19 songs in more than 52 minutes, there's some filler and failed experiments. Experiments with the CD player's program button will create one or more killer 35-minute albums, making this Gelb's very own White Album. ¡¡¡¡

Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings Love Songs to Myself (Permanent Press)

From Elvis' first Sun singles through the Beatles' cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" to recent albums by Nick Lowe, Jonathan Richman and Bill Lloyd, pure pop and pure country have always maintained a fruitful alliance. California's Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings are the latest in this lineage. Their second album (following 1996's The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) straddles the knife-edge between bouncy pop jangle and homey country twang. Some songs favor one over the other, like the two-steppin' "Girl at the End of the Bar" (featuring vocals from the Muffs' Kim Shattuck) or the power-fueled title track. But most of Love Songs To Myself follows the example of the gorgeous "Love in Your Eyes": sweet AM radio harmonies and an instantly memorable chorus parting for some excellent slide guitar solos. Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings are playing here with the Ant Farmers on May 13. Go see them. But until then, listen to this album. Lots. ¡¡¡¡¡

Myracle Brah Life on Planet Eartsnop (Not Lame)

Strike one: Incredibly stupid band name. Strike two: Even more painfully stupid album title. Other than those two missteps, this solo album by Love Nut frontman Andy Bopp has its charms. Bopp indulges a fixation for the Beatles/Badfinger school of pop, creating a set of 20 originals that subtly rewrite any number of '60s pop classics without resorting to outright plagiarism. The songs are unfailingly pleasant, and a few are genuinely excellent, but there's the nagging sense that if I wanted to hear this style of music, I could simply put on a real '60s pop record. I mean, did the Beatles think it was enough to simply rewrite old Everly Brothers' singles? Is the pop audience really this conservative and scared of innovation? Life on Planet Eartsnop is undeniably entertaining, but it's hard to shake the idea that it's music for the pop equivalent of the guy who shouted "Judas!" at Bob Dylan. ¡¡¡

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