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AUGUST 31, 1998: 

***1/2 Van Morrison

THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE: THE UNRELEASED TAPES VOLUME ONE

(Polydor)

Back in 1991, when Columbia released Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, lots of people were shocked that so much material at least as good as, if not better than, much of Dylan's officially released work had been lingering in record-company vaults for years. There's likely to be a similar response to The Philosopher's Stone, a double CD of unreleased Van Morrison recordings from between 1971 and 1988. The 30 tracks collected here, mostly mid-'70s vintage (only five cuts are post-1980), are nearly all of outstanding quality, showcasing the Belfast Cowboy's inimitable soul-dripping vocal style along with some superb sax and harmonica playing. Among the many great moments are Van's outrageous shrieks during "John Henry," the bad-ass groove that just won't quit on "Naked in the Jungle," and this now-dated but charming couplet from "Lover's Prayer": "I don't want no jive artists calling me on the telephone/Don't wanna watch the Carson show all alone." Perhaps the most exciting thing about The Philosopher's Stone is what's hinted at in its subtitle. If there's more where this came from, bring it on. Soon.

-- Mac Randall


*** The Sugarcubes

THE GREAT CROSSOVER POTENTIAL

(Elektra)

The Sugarcubes were a terrific, fascinating band who never made an entirely consistent album, so this greatest-hits is a fine idea: four or five songs from each of their studio discs (and nothing from their posthumous remix compilation, but no big deal). Even so, it drags a little -- you could argue the last two albums had only one great song apiece. But what great songs they were! "Regina" firmed up the edges of the Cocteau Twins' aesthetic and graced it with a fabulous chorus; "Hit" is a weird but enthusiastic rocker augmented by scratching effects, with a lyric that could be about either falling in love or becoming pregnant.

And the good stuff from their debut, Life's Too Good, is still indelible. We've lived with Björk Gudmundsdottir's voice for so long that it's hard to remember how startling it was when the first Sugarcubes single, "Birthday," came out more than 10 years ago -- cracking, half-giggling, half-crying, than leaping to high, vibrant notes. It's also strange to hear Einar Örn, the Fred Schneider of Iceland, ranting away behind her and realize that the Sugarcubes were not entirely Björk's band -- they were a genuine group, with one member whose pop genius trumped the others' patient collective vibe.

-- Douglas Wolk


***1/2 Roy Brooks

THE FREE SLAVE

(32 Jazz)

This is jazz that moans and sweats, a vigorous 1970 live session led by the superbly creative and quite unsung drummer Roy Brooks. At his peak here -- after stints with Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, James Moody, and Pharoah Sanders -- Brooks revs through the funky, fatback beat of the title track, turns trumpeter Woody Shaw loose on the free-flowing "Understanding," lets bassist Cecil McBee and pianist Hugh Lawson run wild through McBee's "Will Pan's Walk," and features the brilliant tenor sax of George Coleman everywhere he can but especially in his own tribute to his drum mentor Max Roach, "Five for Max." What's beautiful is the way all the players split the difference between free jazz and R&B. They make a sound that leaps into the creative stratosphere, yet wallows in strong grooves and generous melodies. And raucous energy. Brooks is a burning sparkplug, firing to his own marvelous, spontaneous patterns. So the playing is full of surprises, not just from his talking kit, explosive cymbals, and singing saw, but in the pure bursts of invention his patter inspires from his bandmates.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Plastilina Mosh

AQUAMOSH

(Capitol)

You'll likely find Aquamosh in the newly christened "rock en español" bins at the record store. But if 1998 -- the year rock en español broke -- has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected from bands who mix Latin and rock. The Mexican duo of beat-arranger/multi-instrumentalist Alejandro Rosso and vocalist/guitarist Jonas are masterful genre fusers, folding Brazilian jazz samba, dubby London club beats, squiggly Moog rock, and deconstructed blues swagger into hip-hop and rock beats. Having friends in high places doesn't hurt: Beck drummer Joey Waronker helps out on five tracks, and Mellow Gold producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf also lend a hand. But Plastilina Mosh go way beyond español when Café Tacuba vocalist Anniomo sings in Japanese on "Bungaloo Punta Cometa" and French vocalist April March croons on "I've Got That Milton Pacheco Kinda Feeling." It's cross-cultural creativity that feels wild and loose yet effortlessly groovy.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Pat Martino

STONE BLUE

(Blue Note)

Pat Martino's big commercial comeback splash took place last year, when a guit-star-studded tribute to the venerable jazz guitarist (All Sides Now on Blue Note) found him recording alongside burners like Les Paul, Kevin Eubanks, Joe Satriani, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson. That was fine and good, but on Stone Blue the 53-year-old legend has all the essentials of a strong, cohesive jazz recording in place: a swift and sympathetic quartet, his own blinding chops unencumbered by others, and a handful of originals.

Martino's adventurous recordings fusing jazz, rock, and more in the 1970s influenced a devoted legion of guitarists. Then he suffered a brain hemorrhage and spent years recovering his memory and his guitar technique. Today, his touch is again among the most exquisite jazz guitarists have to offer: well-articulated without assaulting the listener, fast but not blurry, lyrical without resorting to cliché. Several of the dense yet accessible tunes here are founded on stuttering unison lines from Martino and tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander, a more than capable foil for Martino on the dark, bluesy title cut and a blistering improviser in his own right. Martino's most influential work may be behind him, but Stone Blue demonstrates that we are still in the presence of a master.

-- Bill Kisliuk


**1/2 Mary Gauthier

DIXIE KITCHEN

(RG)

Surly yet sympathetic, Mary Gauthier writes songs that are filled with folks who can't conform to societal norms and gender roles. In "Son" she remembers a neighbor's mistaking her for a boy when she was younger, and in "Skeleton Song" she sings from the perspective of a dying AIDS victim. Gauthier is a local transplant from Louisiana and the proprietor of a restaurant in the Back Bay that shares a name with this album. And like her cooking, her punchy songs are rooted in the traditions of Louisiana. Imagine an older, more country-inflected Ani DiFranco and you'll be on the right track.

-- Bruce Sylvester


***

BESPOKE SONGS, LOST DOGS, DETOURS & RENDEZVOUS: THE SONGS OF ELVIS COSTELLO

(Rhino)

No, not a tribute album, but an anthology of Declan MacManus compositions recorded by others over the past 20 years. Some will be familiar (Dave Edmunds's "Girls Talk"), but as the title suggests, many of the songs are rarities that Costello custom-tailored for other performers (some are songwriting collaborations, like Paul McCartney's "My Brave Face"), and many have never been performed by Costello himself (like June Tabor's "I Want To Vanish"). All point to Costello's remarkable versatility as a stylist (performers as different as Johnny Cash, Annie Ross, Rubén Blades, and the choral group Anúna are represented here, though there is a preponderance of traditional Irish and English folkies), as well as his renowned craftsmanship with melody and wordplay. Few of these interpretations can match Costello's own bitter mix of misanthropy and frustration, though in his detailed liner notes, a generous Costello consistently praises these versions as superior to his own. Highlights include For Real's "Unwanted Number" (from the Grace of My Heart soundtrack), Roy Orbison's "The Comedians," Billy Bremner's "Shatterproof," Robert Wyatt's classic "Shipbuilding" cover, and a ghostly "Almost Blue" by Chet Baker.

-- Gary Susman


*** Cowboy Junkies

MILES FROM OUR HOME

(Geffen)

This is another smart, deceptively mellow collection of songs from Cowboy Junkies about abstract loss, loneliness in the abstract, and, newly brought to the fore, less abstract feelings about death and anger at God. Margot Timmons still uses her dust-dry whisper now and then, but it's been a long time since a feckless rustling sound has been this band's trademark. Now the arrangements are, if not quite aggressive, at least full-bodied, with added keyboards and layered guitars and Margot occasionally full-throated but still sounding fey, in the original sense of the word.

Cowboy Junkies' great strength remains brother Michael's thoughtful lyrics -- spare, direct, and with an unforced poetic quality that prevents the band's mellow depressive stance from becoming precious. A tincture of psychedelia threads through a few songs here, most notably on "New Dawn Coming," a slowly sensuous melody over a "Ticket To Ride" backbeat, and on "Blue Guitar" (a collaboration with the late Townes Van Zandt), which leisurely wraps itself around a raga-like drone. But overall it's the same neo-folk/rock we've all come to know and, when the mood strikes, happily wallow in.

-- Richard C. Walls



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