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OCTOBER 12, 1998: 

***1/2 Wamdue Project

PROGRAM YOURSELF

(Strictly Rhythm)

Of the many disco CDs influenced by the huge success of Robert Miles's seminal Dreamland, producer Chris Brann's Wamdue Project goes straightest to the fusion-jazz heart of the matter. Synthesizer mood music, Afro-jazz trumpet work, snoozy soprano voices, and touchy percussion are all molded, deeply, into the four-on-four pump of house music. The joyous high-pitched synthesizer solo of "King of My Castle," for example, is directly lifted from Kool & the Gang's 1975 hit "Summer Madness" (repeated in the next cut, "Like This"). From the gauzy "Spirit" and "Instrumentation" to the bump dance "Are You High?" and the vogueish "Walk with Me," the CD goes way, way, back in time, to early disco funk (Jimmy Castor's "Troglodyte" and Earth Wind & Fire's "Reasons" and "Kalimba Story" all pop up), seeking out the fanciful ease that fusion-jazz style imparted to that era's jungle boogie-ing. Tracks like "Where Do We Go" and "You're the Reason" suggest that fusion technique can also help dissolve the rough edges of today's techno.

-- Michael Freedberg


**1/2 Ultrababyfat

SILVER TONES SMILE

(Velvel)

Invoking the sacred tradition of Southern rock (that is, the post-R.E.M./Swimming Pool Q's variety), these Atlanta hopefuls with the eccentric name concoct engaging, edgy guitar pop. Although guitarists/songwriters Shomali Bhowmik and Michelle DuBois certainly acknowledge their college-rock forebears (i.e., Throwing Muses), they remain faithfully forward-thinking, crafting lush harmonies in a tangle of unassuming yet dynamic instrumental work. Recording the 13-track album at Memphis's Easley Studios gives Silver Tones Smile an organic vibe that holds up through moments alternately quirky ("What He Said," the horn-and-percussion-powered "Jonesin' "), ethereal (the hypnotic "Water"), garagy ("St. Augustine," "100 Watts"), and unexpected (the Indian-seasoned "Peacock Throne"). As alterna-rock femmes, they can be demure ("Twist") or dangerous ("Girls have burned for less than what I plan to do with a man like you," they vow on "Salem"), and they're confidently seductive in either guise.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** They Might Be Giants

SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE

(Restless)

Severe tire damage is surely what results when you tour as hard as Bay State expatriates John Linnell and John Flansburgh have for more than a decade. A collection of live tracks recorded last year at various venues, Damage features appropriately rough-edged, often wild versions of many of TMBG's best-loved nuggets of warped delight: "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Ana Ng," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and my personal favorite, "Particle Man."

There's some dross here, but this collection serves as a fine survey of the band's career, especially if you were overwhelmed by last year's 72-track compilation, Then. The CD offers some silly new treats as well, including a couple of new studio tracks (notably the bright "Doctor Worm") and several bonus tracks inspired by the Planet of the Apes movies and created spontaneously on stage. Balancing lyrics that celebrate the trivial and the arcane with deliberate musical craftsmanship that defies genre boundaries (rock, jump swing, Cajun, funk, cocktail jazz), Damage is serious fun.

-- Gary Susman


*** Sheryl Crow

THE GLOBE SESSIONS

(A&M)

With her '94 debut, singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow demonstrated that she knew better than the record-company handlers who'd originally commissioned a slicker product from the former Michael Jackson back-up singer, and she got a Grammy for her trouble. With her second -- Sheryl Crow -- she made it clear she could rock with enough gusto to open for the Stones. Which means Crow's reached that point where she's got nothing much left to prove, except perhaps that she's a career artist.

The Globe Sessions -- named for the studio she built for herself in her new home of Manhattan -- accomplishes this goal without breaking a sweat. The overall feel is so confident and relaxed, you're left with the impression that Crow makes roots-pop music the way your mom makes meat loaf for dinner: it's something she's been doing for so long that it just comes naturally, and, hell, people do have to eat. It's not escalopes de veau à l'estragon, but it's good, solid, satisfying comfort food.

The disc's debut single, "My Favorite Mistake," is the kind of seasoned soul vocal Elvis Costello loves to write, simmering against Stonesy syncopated guitars. "There Goes the Neighborhood" is Don Henley's "New York Minute" with a better singer and less heavy-handed social crit. And "Anything But Down" is the sort of moody, mid-tempo, light-touch rock that Tom Petty does so well when Jeff Lynne isn't around. So, no, Crow didn't invent the recipe, but she personalizes it like a pro.

-- Matt Ashare


*** Julius Hemphill/Warren Smith

CHILE NEW YORK

(Black Saint)

It's taken 18 years for the music on this disc to surface. Saxophonist/composer Hemphill tried to release it during his lifetime, and you can see why he failed -- it's some of the most harrowing and abstract music he ever recorded. A woodwinds-percussion "sound environment" by Hemphill and Warren Smith, this composition was an integral part of an installation of ceramic faces by sculptor Jeff Schlanger in the echoing City University Graduate Center Mall on 42nd Street. The installation was inspired by accounts of the political terrors in Chile under the Pinochet regime -- it seemed to ask passers-by what the proper reaction should be to the sufferings of people thousands of miles away.

In keeping with that spirit, the music was recorded with a muffled fidelity, but its anguish is inescapable. Hemphill evokes stark terror, smoldering anger, righteous fire, compassion, spiritual serenity, and ironic disdain in his response to human suffering. Three of the seven duets clock in at around 20 minutes and on first impression may seem to wander. But Hemphill's every note is drenched in feeling, and Smith's largely atmospheric percussion -- timpani, gongs, and vibes -- always creates the appropriate backdrop. It's not an easy listen, but there's plenty to hear.

-- Ed Hazell


*** Joe Lovano

TRIO FASCINATION

(Blue Note)

As one would expect of a conversation among three wise jazzmen, Trio Fascination is sprinkled with quiet insights, some shouting, and more than a little respect for the past. Saxophonist Lovano has earned several awards for an exploratory, post-bop style that builds on foundations poured by Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. Here he is joined by drummer Elvin Jones, who helped define the small-group sound in the Coltrane quartet, and bassist Dave Holland, who has spent much of his accomplished career on the avant-garde edges of the duo and trio formats.

Without a piano, the line-up is less anchored but far more supple than it would otherwise be, shifting effortlessly in and out of tempos and moods. The most brilliant moments are often dialogues: here Holland and Lovano engaging in a back-and-forth of increasing wit; there Jones and the 46-year-old saxophonist chasing each other like dogs in the park, with Elvin playing melody as no other drummer can. For the ballad "Ghost of a Chance," Lovano adopts a sound as breathy and romantic as Coleman Hawkins, later to return to his own edgier tone and more modern vocabulary.

-- Bill Kisliuk


** Graham Coxon

THE SKY IS TOO HIGH

(Transcopic)

When John Frusciante went AWOL from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he put out the impenetrable and agonizing Niandra Lades, a troubling collection of barely finished abstracts that suggested Syd Barrett's post-Floyd collapse. Graham Coxon is still in Blur, but his first solo album reflects a similar joy/frustration/breakdown. Basement-studio in sound, sullen, even contrite, in attitude, it approaches Dinosaur Jr's ragged glory on indie storms like "That's All I Wanna Do" but for the most part sticks to acoustic, in-the-living-room melancholy ("Where'd You Go," "In a Salty Sea," and "A Day Is Far Too Long," a pretty, ravaged heartbreak song with lithe harmonies). Coxon has pointed out that Sky was produced in a spell of "teetotalism," a respite from Blur's pub lust and frequent skiing expeditions. As such, it's a tuneful document of one man's obsessions, painted with Coxon's estimable guitar smarts and as navel-gazing as it gets.

-- James Rotondi


**1/2 Better Than Ezra

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

(Elektra)

Before we sweep up the broken shards of alternative rock and toss them into the dustbin of history, Better Than Ezra would like to take one last look at the pieces, to see whether there might be any fragment worth polishing. On their third, loosest, most experimental album, BTE try a lot of things that would sound silly in less confident hands. How about an electric piano-based, guitar-free bit of noir pop ("One More Murder")? How about a rap with electronically distorted vocals over some Eurotrashy electronica ("Je ne m'en souviens pas")? How about some flute, dub beats, and vibes for extra texture? Some blasts of psychedelia via ancient analog synths? Some grand gestures à la Radiohead, since BTE singer/composer Kevin Griffin's keening voice certainly resembles Thom Yorke's? How about having the musicians play one another's instruments? Everything's here but the sounds of the trio's native New Orleans. The result resembles one of those mosaic tabletops made from shattered crockery. As a whole, it's oddly attractive and sturdy, even though the pieces don't really fit together.

-- Gary Susman


*** Bare Jr.

BOO-TAY

(Immortal/Epic)

Bare Jr. are from Nashville, but they're way more rock-and-roll than country, despite one song here about "tobacco spit." The line-up is fronted by vocalist/guitarist Bobby Bare Jr., who learned about tuneage from his C&W '60s hitmaker dad (who sings back-up on one song). On high-octane workouts like "The Most" and the Gary Glitter-ish clap-along "You Blew Me Off," he affects a Steve Earle drawl but ratchets up the unhinged factor -- and still the guy has to yell to be heard above the onslaught of guitars. All in all, it's a perfect environment for boozy admissions like "I'm in love with you, 'cuz I got nothin' better to do" and songs called "I Hate Myself" (there's also a companion piece called "I Wanna Live"). Like St. Louis's Bottle Rockets, another roots-rocking outfit with one boot in the alternative camp, Bare Jr. sound as if they'd listened to a whole lot of Skynyrd and Georgia Satellites wrapped in a few layers of Social Distortion.

-- Jonathan Perry



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