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OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

*** Stefon Harris BLACK ACTION FIGURE (Blue Note)

Jazz's mainstream wunderkind of the moment is a vibes player with chops to spare, and he can write, too. On his instrument he's got speed, imagination, and dynamics. In his rhythm-player mode he conjures Lionel Hampton's motivic swing; when he's feeling lyrical, he employs Milt Jackson-like vibrato and sustain. He likes to mix up his attack in any given song, and he knows how to squeeze the greatest expression from the full range of his instrument: the low notes can clang like giant, tamped temple bells, the highs sing with glockenspiel sweetness. His improvised lines fly at all altitudes and angles; on his "Feline Blues," he takes a breathtaking dead fall from the top of the scale to the bottom, negotiating a series of pirouettes on the way down.

On this, his second album, he also attractively varies arrangements and personnel. Trombonist Steve Turre flexes his bebop side while keeping pace with Harris's rhythms, Greg Osby's alto is typically angular and minimalist, tenor-sax Gary Thomas supplies appropriate muscle. Harris employs them for solo piquancy in straight blowing tunes, and for little-big-band mass and color in more elaborate arrangements (Thomas's flute helps). A couple of tunes cloy with their sweetness and familiarity ("Collage," "Alovi"), but Harris has the range -- from free ensemble passages to tightly arranged balladry -- to keep things interesting.

-- Jon Garelick


*1/2 Our Lady Peace HAPPINESS . . . IS NOT A FISH THAT YOU CAN CATCH (Columbia)

Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida has one of those annoyingly nasal rock voices that lots of teenagers swoon over and everyone else avoids like the plague. And the stale grunge tendencies of his band don't exactly make up for it. Still, the third disc by these pretty Canadians has its moments. On "One Man Army," Maida apes Thom Yorke's haunting falsetto and the band steal a surging rave-up bridge from Pearl Jam's Vs. to great effect. Producer Arnold Lanni once had a huge hit with the '80s hair band Sheriff, and the twin power ballads "Waited" and "Lying Awake" show he's still got that gooey metallic touch. But on the rest of Happiness . . . , Our Lady Peace offer up the kind of boring, midtempo mush that once made Kurt Cobain offer to find Eddie Vedder a real band. And subjecting legendary Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones to the indignity of cameoing on the incongruous fake-jazz ending that's tacked onto the disc's last song is inexcusable.

-- Sean Richardson


* Meredith Brooks DECONSTRUCTION (Capitol)

With its "inspirational" Queen Latifah cameo, Meredith Brooks's new single "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" venerates the mostly-white-chicks Lilith Fair as a watershed of racial harmony. Starry-eyed, no doubt, but that beats the prissy moralism of the other songs on Deconstruction, where Meredith declares she's had it up to here with our superficial society, henna tattoos (they're shallow!), and Monicagate (timely!). For Brooks, if it makes you happy, it's undoubtedly a crutch, and using "pop-psychology words" makes you a crystal-whipped "Cosmic Woo Woo." (Stale Clueless-isms like "Just get real" and "Let everybody deal," however, are A-okay. I kept waiting for her to say, "Talk to the hand.")

Brooks opened her 1997 debut, Blurring the Edges, rapping about black coffee and Todd Rundgren on the accomplished Sheryl Crow cop "I Need." But she's notorious for "Bitch," which phrased a perfume-commercial simplification of feminine complexity in a binary structure swiped from Alanis Morissette's far-superior "Ironic." Deconstruction rummages through the same totally '90s thrift-store jungle, echoing "Life Is a Highway" and Taylor Dayne (and, on "Shout," sacrilegiously biting the Breeders' "Cannonball" riff stock and barrel). Brooks's writing is a little bit Alanis (minus Morissette's liberating inability to edit her emotions) and a whole lot Sheryl (without the lyrical character development and hunger for solace). "Sin City" boldly (and lamely) rebukes Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas," admonishing, "You can never leave Sin City!" So by the time she gets to "Bored with Myself," you'll know exactly how she feels.

-- Alex Pappademas


*** Mark Lanegan I'LL TAKE CARE OF YOU (Sub Pop)

Mark Lanegan has a voice rich with trouble. It served principally as texture amid the post-psychedelia of his former ensemble, Washington's Screaming Trees. Only toward the end, and on the occasion of their singular brush with pop stardom (the Singles single "I Nearly Lost You"), did Lanegan step to the fore. By then he was well embarked on twin trails, as a solo artist (1990's stark The Winding Sheet, 1994's starker Whiskey for the Holy Ghost) recording with former Dinosaur Jr bassist Mike Johnson and as an addict.

Ultimately, as 1998's Scraps at Midnight chronicled, the music won out. Barely. Still working within the muted grays that are his distinctive métier, Lanegan's new, all-covers long-player celebrates the widely varied music he loves as only a gifted singer can, moving easily across years and genres, from Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce to Bobby Bland to Buck Owens, from the Leaving Trains to Fred Neil to Eddie Floyd. Working with a rotating cast of Northwest players, the album places Lanegan's voice within a variety of acoustic settings, expanding beyond Johnson's sparse accompaniment. But it is his voice, suddenly tender, assured, and newly flexible, that makes these carefully chosen songs soar into the good night.

-- Grant Alden


**1/2 Gomez LIQUID SKIN (Virgin)

With their debut CD, Bring It On, Gomez, a quintet of young English upstarts, surprised a lot of pop observers by snatching 1998's Mercury Music Prize (the UK's Grammy) from some tough competition. The award catapulted the then-inexperienced group, its members still in their early 20s, into a world tour that could've heaped too much pressure on one of the year's more promising acts.

Liquid Skin, though, proves Gomez have held it together. The album expands on the unsettling grace and eerie maturity of its predecessor with vivid portraits ("Blue Moon Rising"), wide-eyed rock balladry ("We Haven't Turned Around"), and the group's ongoing fascination with American culture and geography ("California," "Las Vegas Dealer"). If Bring It On established Gomez's earnest devotion to a broad garage-rock tradition, from Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead to Pearl Jam (whose Eddie Vedder Gomez's Ben Ottewell possesses an uncanny vocal similarity to), Liquid Skin stretches out and lets the band make more of their own mark. That means further developing an idiosyncratic and organic approach, one that reaches ambitious, White Album-like musical heights on "California" and "Bring It On." Gomez revel in the proverbial long, strange trip of it all, and it does seem to be taking them somewhere.

-- Mark Woodlief


**** Cheap Suit ANOTHER DAY ANOTHER DOLLAR (Tautology)

Guitarist Peter Warren's free-improv unit has been haunting local clubs and galleries since 1994, but this colorful, wide-ranging live set from 1998 is their first release. Warren, drummer Curt Newton, bassist Nate McBride, and reed player Jeff Hudgins form the kind of group in which everyone can function as a drum and/or as a melodic instrument; what's more, the responsibilities for developing the music are shared equally. This democratic spirit makes "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made," the 35-minute piece that makes up the CD, richly varied and surprising; you never know who will instigate a new direction, and sometimes it's hard to tell exactly who is making what sound.

The set runs the gamut of free-improv strategies, from parallel linear improvisations to pure sound abstractions, and with the quartet spontaneously breaking up into duos and trios, the textures and colors are in constant motion. Warren's specially tuned guitar is particularly ear-catching, injecting into the music a microtonal twang that's very close to the blues. For all its mutability, the composition isn't rudderless. All four musicians are such close listeners with quick reflexes that each new development sounds organic. As soon as someone proposes a new avenue for the music to travel, the rest of the group are all over it.

-- Ed Hazell


**** Charles Mingus MINGUS MOVES (32 Jazz)

This 1973 recording is one of the most beautiful results of the composer-bassist's Mingus Jazz Workshop years. It's all about what happens when melodies meet meat -- when dexterous soloing and smartly layered harmonies are given full range in ear-pleasing midtempo pieces that also allow for unfettered improvisation. Mingus is a warm and driving presence who along with pianist Don Pullen and drummer Danny Richmond keeps the seven tunes gracefully swinging. The secret star here is George Adams on tenor sax and flute. He wails and flutters the coda of Mingus's "Opus 3" to Mars, yet keeps his tone mellow enough to make his wild effusiveness plenty earthy. He's especially respectful of Ronald Hammond's trumpet lines on the elegant "Wee" and of vocalists Honey Gordon and Doug Hammond on "Moves," building a cocoon of gentle harmony around their lines until it's time for him to cut loose. Plus, Pullen's solo on "Wee" foreshadows the dynamic expressionism that became his signature. This CD is a jewel.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Bardo Pond SET AND SETTING (Matador)

A helicopter hovers high overhead at the start of Bardo Pond's third full-length, the rotary blades churning pockets of air that turns to sludge 50 seconds later when the turgid guitars of brothers John and Michael Gibbons stagger into view. It's an 11-minute lurch called "Walking Stick Man," and it's a challenging way to kick off an album.

Of course, Bardo Pond have never been bashful about sonic ruminations. They've always favored a cosmic-slop sprawl of sound as an end unto itself rather than as dressing around the edges of standard verse-chorus-verse rock. And the results have often been compelling. Although their second album, Amanita, remains a high-water mark in terms of cohesion, variety, and start-to-finish listenability, this is Bardo Pond's most defining statement. The songs here are mostly instrumentals, though vocalist/flutist Isobel Sollenberger does drop in and out of the mix from time to time. What gives the band its power is its amalgam of miasmatic, post-rock noise, brooding, acid-fried psychedelia, and dinosaur-heavy slabs of squall.

-- Jonathan Perry


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