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MARCH 9, 1998: 

***1/2 The Handsome Family


(Carrot Top)

The Handsome Family actually are a family, the husband-and-wife songwriting team Rennie and Brett Sparks -- though various friends help out on this, their third album, including Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the Pulsars' Dave Trumfio. The Sparkses draw most of their ideas from early country music, chiefly the sense that the songs speak through the singer: Brett delivers most of them in a sort of '50s baritone twang, allowing Rennie's darkly detailed lyrics to work their subtle magic. The Handsomes draw on conventional country melodies (as on "Cathedrals") and standard folk-song symbols (the "lily-white breast" and "silver dagger" of the double-suicide ballad "Down in the Valley of Hollow Logs"). But they integrate modernity with arrangements that incorporate everything from drum machine to melodica to tuba, and songs that allude to Haldol and Slice and the Chicago public transportation system. Through the Trees is a timeless country album for urban grown-ups, a disc whose twin beds and death wishes resonate beyond the here and now.

-- Douglas Wolk

** Spacehog



Spacehog are four Young Dudes from Leeds to who moved to NYC a few years ago and scored a record deal with their shameless imitation of classic glam-era David Bowie, which is sort of funny when you consider Bowie's own history of pilfering from Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. But pilfering is too polite a term for Spacehog's brand of larceny; unabashed sounds too cute; and even shameless isn't quite strong enough to describe the degree to which Spacehog aped the wham-bam intergalactic glam of ye olde Thin White Duke on Resident Alien, their 1995 Sire debut.

The Chinese Album, which comes out this Tuesday, follows the same basic game plan, only Spacehog show a bit more instrumental sophistication this time around. The mix of skeletal piano, electronic drums, and found sounds on "One of These Days" brings to mind Eno-era Bowie -- assuming you can get past singer/bassist Royston Langdon's moronic musings on mortality and his pitch-perfect warbling Bowie impersonations. And his Royston's guitarist brother Antony embellishes the "Jean Genie" stomp of "Goodbye Violet Race" with some top-notch Mick Ronson-style fancy fretwork. Like America doing Neil Young, Badfinger doing the Beatles, or, more accurately, the Cult doing AC/DC, Spacehog's Spiders from Mars shtick works best for the length of a hook-laden rocker like "Mungo City" ("Suffragette City"?) -- which is a damn fine single -- and grows immensely tiresome over the course of an hour-long album. But if Ziggy Stardust ever decides to make a comeback, he'll know where to find a decent backing band.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Odean Pope Trio



Most saxophonists who use John Coltrane's ideas end up sounding like him. Not Philadelphia's Odean Pope -- the longtime member of the Max Roach Quartet has a style all his own. Like Trane, Pope's an impeccable craftsman and an advanced thinker, but his imposing skill and intellect are always dedicated to a higher aim. On "Fourth House," his search for hidden musical relationships in the tune's structure has all the drama and beauty of a search for divine secrets. His solos on "Free Spirit" and the title track employ such advanced techniques as multiphonics (playing several notes at once), circular breathing (inhaling through the nose and exhaling into the instrument simultaneously), and elaborate motivic development. But he does so with a personalized sound -- a hard, flinty tone brightened by an expressively hoarse edge. He works in collaboration with bassist Tyrone Brown, whose warm, voluptuous sound and continuous countermelodies add harmonic depth and rhythmic variety, and drummer Craig McIver, a melodic percussionist with both finesse and power. If years of hearing Coltrane's innovations rehashed have left you feeling there's nothing more to be done with them, this CD will revive your faith.

-- Ed Hazell

**1/2 Nick Kelly



Four years ago Ireland's Nick Kelly quit singing for The Fat Lady Sings and took a self-imposed hiatus from music. Eighteen months later he scrounged together enough money to record and release his first solo album, Between Trapezes, a testament to separation and self-reflection, which is now available in the US on the local Lunch label (run by Orbit drummer Paul Buckley). The title of the album refers to the instant at which a circus performer, having released one trapeze bar, takes a leap of faith and hovers in the air before catching the next one. Floating above a great chasm, Kelly lends his crisp, slightly strained voice to tracks that observe a world broken in two. The unobtrusive sounds of an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a violin complement his interconnecting stories. In the catchy, pop-folk "Lover's Easy To Say," Kelly asks, "Define your goals/Are they just wheels to speed you away from me and this world I build for us?" Searching for poetry in simple words and phrases, he seems to be finding a new perspective, and a new lease, on life.

-- Ian Pervil

*** Natalie Imbruglia



A newcomer from Australia, Imbruglia sings torchy Europop and actressy modern rock in a tiny soprano reminiscent of Toronto homegirl Alanis Morissette. But where Morissette sings about the ironies of material abundance in a life of romantic frustration, Imbruglia sings about the limited availability of romance and her desire to have it all the time. The soul and its desires are Imbruglia's focus; danceable beats underpin most of her songs. Thus she moves brightly through both the enigmatic fissures of "Big Mistake" and "Don't You Think?" and the dreamy, trouble-free Europop of "Impressed," "Torn," and "One More Addiction." And if this last title and the lyric details of "Leave Me Alone" and "Pigeons and Crumbs" all cast doubt on just how easy Imbruglia imagines romance to be, the childlike smoothness of her soprano amid the rough cuts of her guitar and synthesizer support promises that, where her heart's concerned, everything will be all right -- some day.

-- Michael Freedberg

*** Mark Mulcahy



With his longtime New Haven-based band Miracle Legion now kaput, singer Mark Mulcahy stakes his solo claim on semi-acoustic rock. The songs are wound-up and intensely personal. The music can be tense and edgy, as on the title track, where a repeating guitar figure booms with menace as Mulcahy breathes, cries, and moans about emotionally twisted childhoods spilling into confused adult relationships. Or the songs will ring with the sprightly strum of acoustic guitar and Mulcahy's strong vocal melodies, which often soar into idiosyncratic falsetto singing. Mulcahy is experimenting with his voice here, finding new sounds to bring his odd and often dour characters to life. The sense of alienation and ennui that runs through Fathering seems to parallel his feelings about the slow demise of Miracle Legion, who wasted away as their career was put on hold by a big-label deal that went south. His re-emergence as a lone troubadour with a dark worldview is a triumph of sorts, and even the sourest of these songs has an underpinning of hope. (Write to Mezzotint at Box 1634, New Haven, Connecticut 06507.)

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Finley Quaye


(550 Music)

Singer Finley Quaye isn't just Tricky's uncle -- he's the melancholy trip-hop star's alter ego. Whereas Tricky is all doom and gloom, the 23-old Quaye sounds bright and cheerful on this full-length debut. Quaye, who is part Ghanaian and part Scottish, sings about the life-affirming beauty of clear skies ("Sunday Shining") and the passion of true love ("It's Great When We're Together") with heartfelt sincerity. His near-falsetto voice and slightly affected patois suits both the slow R&B groove of "Even After All" and the skittish dub reggae beats of the Lee "Scratch" Perry-influenced "Ride On and Turn the People On." Quaye didn't win a Brit Music Award this year for nothing -- his soulful voice recalls the likes of Al Green, Bob Marley, and Sam Cooke, and his material is nearly as timeless.

-- Jeff Niesel

*** Curlew



Curlew have long been one of new music's more affably twisted bands, with a keen sense of humor and a firm grasp of popular music. With cellist Tom Cora and drummer Pippin Barnett departed, guitarist Chris Cochrane and drummer Kenny Wolleson join founding saxophonist George Cartwright and guitarist Davey Williams, as well as longtime bassist Ann Rupel. They never sweat segues from reggae to rock to odd meters to free-jazz deconstructions. And the album's emotional range -- from the breezy title track to the righteous anger of "Not Innocent" to the wistful "Neither Baby" -- is as broad as the band's command of different genres. The two guitarists tug and tear maniacally at the bass grooves on "Blood Meridian" while Cartwright rails in jagged, acid-edged shards of melody. "Argon" swings from cartoony exaggeration to dead-serious soul searching in the blink of an eye. On "Crazy Feet, Sensible Shoes," musical toys add an absurd touch to some raucously gleeful blues-rock guitar and rasping saxophone soloing. Curlew have been at this sort of thing for nearly 20 years, and they still make it sound fresh, provocative, and entertaining.

-- Ed Hazell

*1/2 Adam F



Junglist Adam F's debut full-length really ought to be packaged with an oversized hardbound book crammed with pictures of spiral galaxies and healing crystals. An ever-so-tasteful coffee table is exactly where this unadventurous package of F's 1995-'97 singles belongs. That's not to imply that Colours lacks musical ideas; it's just that the arrangements don't stray a millimeter from the hidebound form of the dance-floor jungle anthem. All the signatures of "jazzy" jungle are there: muted trumpets, synth washes, and restrained but funky drum programming. Indeed, the high point is "73," which channels the improvisational intensity of a jazz-fusion combo into jungle's swirling polyrhythms.

But the rest (with the partial exception of the shuffle-funk "F Jam") devolves into jungle-by-numbers -- you know the jig is up when you hear those hackneyed police-car-siren samples. Even Roni Size, the current master rethinker of jungle's place in the pop universe, can't seem to find any room for innovation on his remix of F's signature hit "Circles." Dystopia has never sounded so pretty, and that's precisely the problem.

-- Chris Tweney

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