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NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 

***1/2 The Saw Doctors

SONGS FROM SUN STREET

(Paradigm)

One of their early songs may be called "Me Heart Is Livin' in the Sixties Still," but this mostly-from-Galway quartet are really living in the still-more-innocent '50s, a boys' world of fast cars, fast friendships, and beautiful, unapproachable girls conveyed through the sonic language of Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. On this, their second US album (the first was last year's Sing a Powerful Song also on Paradigm), they maintain their impressive consistency even as a certain '50s blandness creeps in -- perhaps because they're trying to avoid topics they and/or their label consider too Irish for American audiences. Yet their lyrics are often deceptively simple. "D'Ya Wanna Hear My Guitar" invites "Martina" to "play" and "hold" it as well. "Best of Friends" begs the question why the singer wasn't at his best friend's wedding, and where that friend is now. "Away with the Fairies" is a guy song about idealistic love and happily-ever-after; the narrator of "I'll Be on My Way" could be emigrating, facing adulthood, or dying. The girls remain unapproachable: Songs from Sun Street is actually all about growing up, or rather not growing up -- which is its weakness, but also its strength.

The good news for fans is that this is entirely new material, none of it from the Saw Docs' three Irish CDs or their numerous EPs. The bad news is what's not here: the hilarious "Pied Piper" and "F.C.A.," the infectious "Michael D. Rocking in the Dáil" (addressed to an Irish minister of culture) and "Presentation Boarder" (addressed to the girls of a local college), the touchingly altruistic "I Hope You Meet Again," and, of course, "I'd Like To Kiss the Bangles" (but was "kiss" the original verb?). Maybe next time, along with a song celebrating Galway's triumph in this year's All-Ireland Gaelic-football final.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


*** Reeltime

LIVE IT UP

(Green Linnet)

All things green are in bloom these days, and the sessions for this high-flying sextet's second disc had to be slated around the Riverdance schedules of fiddler Máirín Fahy and accordionist Éilís Egan. Sounds like the hectic agenda generated some high energy. Celtic music relies on groove almost as much as funk, and liftoff and syncopation are everywhere on Live It Up's barn burners. Reeltime are also known for their lawlessness -- like many attentive modernists they broaden their scope by yielding to fancies. Cutesy eclecticism seldom tickles me, but the gypsy Western swing of "Nashville Brats" is a certifiable hoot and sturdy enough to be reminiscent of the indelible melodies on Russ Barenberg's classic newgrass outing, Cowboy Calypso. Elsewhere an Italian wedding tune is sandwiched between a couple of Irish themes; with just the slightest wink, it sits soundly. All this esprit makes the mawkishness of Reeltime's balladry a bit easier to digest. Thomas Moore's "Believe Me" could be used for wedding vows, and Máirín's sigh is the main ingredient of the melodrama that's "The Mountains of Pomery." I'll trade both for the schmaltzy waltz they dedicate to a couple from Concord -- it walks the right side of poignancy.

-- Jim Macnie


**1/2 Offspring

AMERICANA

(Columbia)

When Orange County's platinum-punk prodigies came out of the heavy-metal closet on their major-label debut ('96's Ixnay on the Hombrey), it proved something punk progeny have always known: power ballads aren't half as much fun as a good novelty tune. And Offspring's Smash smash "Come Out and Play" -- the tune that put the platinum in their punk -- was nothing if not a top-notch novelty, every bit as crucial to '96 playlists as Carl Douglas Jr.'s "Kung Fu Fighting" was back in '74.

Americana (in stores this Tuesday) finds Dexter Holland boldly leading his boys back to Dr. Demento land with the looney-tune single "Pretty Fly (For a White Boy)" -- a reverse-angle "Play That Funky Music" that aims a jesting fly-girl hook at "wiggers" with bad taste. The disc has its serious moments -- crime and punishment hits the suburbs amid the tuneful surge of "The Kids Aren't Alright." And some ridiculous ones, too, like the long-winded Eastern-tinged psychedelic intro to "Pay the Man," which might have worked better as the punkified "King Tut" it almost sounds like. And while we're speaking of covers, you do get an amusingly hardcored "Feelings," a snotty send-up in the tradition of "My Way" by perhaps the world's first novelty punk, Sid Vicious.

-- Matt Ashare


**1/2 moe.

TIN CANS AND CAR TIRES

(550 Music)

Some bands are not designed to be recorded in the studio, but that doesn't mean their CDs have to suck. moe., who have won their audience through a relentless touring schedule, prove the point on this pumped-up and eclectic set, their second for Sony's 550 label. Blending screwiness with serious chops and complex compositions with pop sensibilities, Tin Cans and Car Tires veers toward country here and funk there but remains just good old rock and roll throughout. Built on twin electric guitars, bass, and drums, the disc sets aside the band's 45-minute jams in favor of a dozen tunes of more moderate proportions. High spirits and a sense of adventure prevail, with moe. taking it all only as seriously as necessary. Older folks might remember Little Feat and NRBQ had some of these same qualities, though it would be a futile exercise to try to pick apart the tangle of all things jamming, from the Allmans to Zappa, in the mix here.

-- Bill Kisliuk


**1/2 Jim Carroll

POOLS OF MERCURY

(Mercury)

It starts with a promise of decapitation, as if to prove that his punkishness is still in effect almost two decades after Catholic Boy's skag stories turned heads. And it ends with an evaluation of Kurt Cobain's pre-blast psyche, part of which was published in the New York Times after the grunge god's death. Finales have always tickled Carroll's muse, and this intriguing rebirth -- he hasn't made a rock album in some 14 years -- is spotted with vicious eulogies and romanticized endgames. Although adept at the theatrics of murmurs and insinuation, Carroll makes his spoken verse resonate by blowing a bit of hot air into it.

About half the tracks here are recitations backlit with abstract sounds created by synths or guitars. Their arty ambiance helps frame hyper-poetic lines like "so silent, so slow, like the Germanic cough drop dissolving on John Cage's cautious tongue" while reminding us that Carroll is more effective at titillation than profundity. The rest are rock tunes, and these suggest that oomph and hooks are also a poet's tools. The catchiness of songs like "Falling Down Laughing" and "Desert Town" balance the more hermetic passages. Obfuscation is a rock-poesy copout, but Pools of Mercury is cloudy only when it chooses to be.

-- Jim Macnie


**1/2

JENNIFER PAIGE

(Edel America/Hollywood)

It's hard to believe that the teary-eyed self-involvement music of Sarah McLachlan merits imitators, but Jennifer Paige, whose dreamy "Crush" remains lodged in the Top 10 of the Billboard "Hot 100 Singles" chart, is a pretty good one because she takes from McLachlan the self-involvement but not the embellishments. The contradictions in Paige's music -- like that between the flawless polish of Andy Goldmark's arrangements and the little angsts she sings about -- feel pretty basic. Where McLachlan's lyrics imply profound but unspecific meanings and limitless but nameless yearnings, Paige goes for the simple and the immediate. In jazzy steps like "Busted," the soulful "Let It Rain," and a sultry "Just To Have You," and in countryish sighs like "Questions," she reaches across the room, not the sky. And if her slight soprano, like McLachlan's voice of dreaminess, rarely grips the music's wrist, at least when Paige has to get dreamy (as in "Crush"), she's far too factual to perfume a song to death. Which is why she can sigh a leaving-you song like "Sober," and still make you feel intoxicated.

-- Michael Freedberg


** His Name Is Alive

FT. LAKE

(4AD)

Some boys get chemistry sets. Others get home recording studios. Back in his teens, Warren DeFever, who essentially is His Name Is Alive, converted his parents' suburban Detroit basement into a Hipsville USA assembly line of experimental pop. The arrangement has afforded this mad scientist the opportunity to kick out the indie jams in various guises. Working with singer Karin Oliver and 4AD honcho/producer Ivo Watts-Russel, DeFever emerged in 1990 with a note-perfect copy of the iconic label's patented gumbo of goth-ambient atmospherics and banshee vocals. He then moved on to more abrasive and eclectic fare, employing everything from guitar distortion to homemade loops. And on His Name Is Alive's last full-length, Stars on ESP, he offered a beguiling re-enactment of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The concept this time revolves around new wave and soul projections (the disc's producer, Steve King, has worked with Aretha Franklin and Funkadelic). The tunes gurgle with puny Casio keyboards and synth-pop handclaps, Dexy's Midnight Runners-style goofabilly, a little R&B, and even Hendrixy rock. Unfortunately, the cosmic sloppiness of the soul jams suggests that DeFever may be reaching for something beyond his grasp.

-- Patrick Bryant


**1/2 Faithless

SUNDAY 8 PM

(Arista)

Faithless came on shrewder than a White House spin doctor with their '97 dance-floor staple "Insomnia," which married a seductively swirling beat to the rave-friendly soundbite "I can't get no sleep." But the track relegated the rest of that fine full-length to underground status, making the UK band seem just another one-hit export. Sunday 8 PM may attract even less notice given its lack of anything as immediate as the breakthrough, despite a game effort with the pleasantly lolling synth-hook-and-breakbeat tune "God Is a DJ."

The album offers a more organic sort of pre-millennium tension than we've gotten from Tricky (an apt comparison given vocalist Maxi Jazz's throaty drawl and the band's surging trip-hop bent). Programmer Rollo and keyboardist Sister Bliss display skills beyond the trip-hop/dance-music axis, adjusting textures and shaping rhythms to align with tastefully sparse guitar contributions, DJ Swamp's skittery scratching, and aching vocals from a woman named Dido on the halting, gospel-referencing "Hem of His Garment." The curious appearance of Boy George (on the pedestrian R&B vamp "Why Go?") suggests that Faithless feel the need to lure back the faithful, yet it only interrupts the otherwise liquid flow on Sunday.

-- Richard Martin



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