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By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

Bruce Cockburn Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (Ryko)

When he's at his overbearing worst, few things can be as annoying as a Bruce Cockburn album. Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, while in some ways a meandering affair that's difficult to absorb, sums up Cockburn's artistic vision and does so in a way that's not altogether overwrought. In fact, the album's highs are as high as anything Cockburn has done thus far. Still, his lyrics tend to be obtuse, often laden with forced rhymes and nonsensical metaphor that make Cockburn seem holier than thou and not quite as cool as he'd like to think he is.

His James McMurtry-meets-Lou Reed deadpan is effective most of the time and sometimes downright prophetic. But confusing arrangements and long songs -- there's not a tune on the record under four-and-a-half minutes long -- offer little resolve and tend to drive the listener away rather than draw him or her in. Exceptions here are "Mango," which doesn't suffer from the strained wordplay that makes some of Breakfast in New Orleans ... unwieldy, and its steady, plodding beat is almost hypnotic when paired with Cockburn's finely crafted melody. "Last Night of the World" has the sort of folk song lead-in that's the stuff of legend and a powerful yet laid-back pulse that rests comfortably in the back seat while Cockburn drives his love poem home.

On the other hand, an absolutely awful cover of "Blueberry Hill," on which Cockburn duets with Cowboy Junkies' vocalist Margo Timmins, is absolute mockery.

Overall, though, Breakfast in New Orleans ... is a solid effort, outshining most of Cockburn's work during the past decade. He's a sensitive songwriter when he wants to be, a quasi-guru when he thinks he has to be. He'd do well to take a few more cues from Lou Reed and realize that sometimes saying nothing is the best, most poignant lyric of all.


Cesaria Evora Café Atlantico (RCA)

Silenced for decades stateside by an oppressive Cape Verdean government, Cesaria Evora has become something of a transplanted national treasure since her American tour of three years ago. In the wake of her arrival, passion for the music of the Cape Verde region has grown immense (Rounder Records, for instance, is in the midst of releasing a series dedicated to infiltration of Cape Verdean music in other regions of the world and its influence).

On Café Atlantico, Evora's voice sounds more seasoned (perhaps by the coffee and cigarettes she consumes between sets, often without leaving the stage) than ever, evoking a timeless quality that's both haunting and hypnotic. Singing in an African-inflected Portuguese dialect, Evora is able to communicate melodically, thus nearly completely erasing the language barrier faced by most Western listeners.

The music -- performed with impeccable precision by an 11-piece band -- incorporates elements of Latin and African rhythms and folkish melodies that collide in an enchanting mish mash of world music. Melancholy and joy fold over on each other, offering an atmosphere of relaxed beauty and reflection that's quite easy to become lost in. Evora is certainly one of the best singers of her time, worthy of more accolades than can be put to paper. Café Atlantico simply speaks for itself.


Days of the New Days of the New (Outpost)

Days of the New's Travis Meeks is either a control freak, a mastermind or a hard-nosed son of a bitch. Maybe he's all three. At 20 years old, Meeks has seen his band "make it" and quickly disband after their self-titled sophomore release. He cites creative and directional differences. And if Days of the New's latest offering is any indication, those differences were manifold and irreconcilable. The new record is as self-indulgent as they come, yet very slightly endearing. High-brow string and horn arrangements permeate the record, affording it a regrettable progressive rock feel. Meeks's own Live-like warble is even more regrettable, leading the listener on a journey that ends in a backwash of unlikable songs that at best crowd each other out and make the whole experience downright unpleasant. Meeks's vision has outstayed its welcome and comes across as a litany of decent ideas gone very wrong. Rather than invest in this record, buy the Doors' anthology and wait patiently for the next Eels record.


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