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DECEMBER 1, 1997: 

*** Will Oldham

JOYA

(Drag City)

Former Palace Brother Will Oldham -- the artist formerly not particularly well known as Push -- seems to have found himself, or at least lost the desire to cloak his rootsy exploits in various permutations of the Palace moniker. He's also made a full recovery from the rickety acoustic regression of last year's Arise Therefore (a Palace release on Drag City), instead picking up where '95's organ-, piano-, and electric guitar-fortified Viva Last Blues (a Palace Music release on Drag City) left off. Plugging back in, he leads a loose yet sure-footed ensemble through a dozen folk-based numbers that bring to mind the young Dylan and early Neil Young without sounding quite like either.

It's Oldham's penchant for cryptic turns of verse rooted in a kind of apocalyptic spirituality ("I've seen people crumble and fall by the way/And humble themselves like it's their due to pay") and Appalachian-flavored folk that most resembles Dylan. And it's his high-pitched nasal whine and world-weary delivery that recalls Harvest-era Young. The fuller arrangements on Joya, particularly on strum-and-drone tunes like "Antagonism" (a crocodile smile of a song featuring string embellishments) and the ominous, Eastern-tinged "New Gypsy," also hint at some of R.E.M.'s less accessible folk abstractions, which means Oldham's still an acquired taste, though not quite as hard to acquire as he once was.

-- Matt Ashare


***1/2 Tonio K.

OLÉ

(Gadfly)

Tonio K. began his career as a smart, angry guy on a rampage in the late '70s; currently he writes hits for Vanessa Williams and Wynonna Judd. In between he made a string of solo albums that fell through the cracks, largely because his original fans were put off by a developing Christian slant in his writing, and because he was still too sharp and cynical for the Christian mainstream.

This album, originally rejected by A&M in 1989 and just acquired by the rabid Tonio K. fans at Gadfly (who have also reissued his catalogue), is easily his best since the heathen days. Producer T-Bone Burnett brings in his usual studio crew (with guests Paul Westerberg, a couple of Lobos, and organist Booker T. Jones); and the album's acoustic base doesn't keep them from rocking out -- K. even sings a few tracks, including the self-explanatory "Pardon Me for Living," in his old clenched-teeth style. Long-time fans will be relieved that there aren't any explicit Christian references; yet his writing does show a more righteous humanism. "Hey Lady," which addresses child abuse, is a close cousin to Elvis Costello's "Little Palaces" in topic, arrangement, and tone. The same anger appears in both songs, but K.'s take is ultimately more forgiving and less smug.

-- Brett Milano


*1/2 The Sundays

STATIC AND SILENCE

(Geffen)

Five years ago the Sundays scored an American hit with "Love" from the album Blind, a disc that gave the British band a strong foothold in the US. Unfortunately, this long-overdue follow-up doesn't sound like the result of five years' work -- more like five days. On "Homeward" and "When I'm Thinking About You" fairly good lyrics are supported by a bland backing of strummed acoustic guitar, light bass lines, and quiet drumming. The appealing dynamics of Blind have disappeared on all but "Summertime," Static and Silence's first single and lead track. This tune opens with a pleasant jolt of twangy electric guitar rather than a sickly sweet acoustic guitar, and the loud/quiet arrangement harks back to the Sundays that went gold five years ago. Harriet Wheeler harmonizes with herself here, giving the song a fullness that's rare on the disc. As a singer she's grown up, replacing her Björkian baby-girl chirp with a richer crooning voice. Plus, what she has to say is almost revolutionary: it's refreshing to hear a woman singing to us about love and happiness in a time when most are complaining about how crappy men are.

-- Jumana Farouky


***1/2

PHOENIX: THE MUSIC OF ERNÖ KIRÁLY

(ReR)

Yugoslav composer Ernö Király is close to 80 years old, but this CD will likely be the first most anyone has heard of him in the West. Cut off from communication with the rest of Europe by first World War II, then the Iron Curtain, and now civil war (an ethnic Hungarian, he's currently Serbian according to the most recent lines drawn through the Balkans), Király has developed an idiosyncratic style based on homemade instruments with folk models, not unlike the work of Harry Partch.

This CD documents a range of work, utilizing traditional orchestral instruments as well as Király's own strange zithers, cymbalums, and electronics -- but all of it is marked by that extreme sort of musical eccentricity that results in the construction of new instruments. Király's hammered strings have a spooky and also hicky sound -- their origin in the village folk instruments of the Balkans is evident -- but he uses them in a scratchy, cut-up way that merges comfortably with his electronic experiments. This is an exciting discovery for Western new-music fans, courtesy of the English experimental-rock label ReR and its "general editor," drummer Chris Cutler.

-- Damon Krukowski


***1/2 Steve Earle

EL CORAZON

(E Squared/Warner Bros.)

Given the stunning twin triumphs of 1995's Train a-Comin' and last year's I Feel Alright, it's no surprise to find Steve Earle's name on another extraordinary album about ordinary people. With a voice that breathes cool fire and a supporting cast that includes Emmylou Harris, the Del McCoury bluegrass band, and Seattle punks the Supersuckers, Earle distills a new batch of tunes that sound as if they'd been sewn into the fabric of America ages ago.

The dirt roads of his dry and dusty songs lead to honky-tonks, board rooms, and kitchens across the country. On the opening track, "Christmas in Washington," he laments the loss of Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, chronicling a United States fractured by poverty, injustice, and cold-hearted indifference. In "Taneytown" he writes from the perspective of a 22-year-old retarded African-American man confronting racism. Heavy stuff to be sure, but Earle is never preachy. He keeps things swinging with the silvery jangle of acoustic and electric guitars and a perspective that cuts rather than bludgeons.

-- Jonathan Perry


*

PAUL McCARTNEY'S STANDING STONE

(EMI)

Ordinarily a composer's name does not appear in the titles of his works. For that matter, the ability to read music is usually considered a prerequisite to writing a major orchestral/choral piece. But fame and money can curdle pop stars into pretentious vulgarians, and there's not much that matches the pretension and vulgarity of Paul McCartney's Standing Stone. Maybe the possessive of the title is a pre-emptive strike, given that Sir Cute One's piano doodles were fleshed out by a team of transcribers, arrangers, and orchestrators, and that the credits list an editor for McCartney's sub-Joycean babble of a poem on which this programmatic work is based (it concerns an early human referred to as "First Person Singular").

The London Symphony Chorus aaaaaahs, the LSO strings swirl soundtrackishly, and harps sound glissandos. Back when the Beatles did this stuff on "Good Night" they knew it was camp. But Standing Stone's deadpan liner notes improbably compare one of the piece's passages to Charles Ives, with whose work, they note, McCartney is unfamiliar. McCartney is, at heart, a gifted melodist, and even his overwrought Liverpool Oratorio was redeemed by some swell tunes. This leaden, bombastic mess has none.

-- Douglas Wolk


***1/2 Various

GRIND

(Tommy Boy)

It's hard for today's smoky, streetwise hits to fetch the naive glitter of early disco. So what is it that gets the most of the remixes in this nonstop program of girls-night-out dance songs back to the joyous basics? First principle is a close attention to the babydoll beats and pucker poses of the barrio kids' dance called "freestyle." Grind presents it in two formulations, the original barrio version (here, Jocelyn Enriquez's "Little Bit of Ecstasy," Amber's "One More Night," and the Funky Green Dogs' "Fired Up") and freestylish remixes of two alterna-dance girl-rock songs, Garbage's "Stupid Girl" and Sneaker Pimps' "Spin Spin Sugar." But freestyle merely pins the tail of humor on Grind's donkey of sex appeal. The disc's glitter and naïveté arrive by way of Brazilian music. Play Ultra Nate's sleepy-eyed "Free," Nuyorican Soul's revisit of "Runaway" (a classic 1977 disco lullaby), and Felizia's "Samba de Janeiro" and you'll immediately feel the light sweet touch that made early disco shine.

-- Michael Freedberg


*1/2 Adam Sandler

WHAT'S YOUR NAME?

(Warner Bros.)

It seems only a matter of time before Adam Sandler eschews comedy for a career as a second-rate musician. On this, his third CD, the alternately cute and vulgar but always immature former Saturday Night Live-er scraps the dopy little jingles that made him famous. Instead, he cheesily tackles everything from blues to '80s dance pop to country.

Sandler seems to have a special fondness for the power ballad. There's a full backing band, songs are slickly produced, and he's a competent imitator/singer. But that leaves little room for jokes. This more musical approach occasionally works -- on the clever "Listening to the Radio," a girlfriend-less Sandler pines for women from famous rock songs: "I want an Angie, a Mandy, a Candy-O, a Devil in a Dress of Blue/A Rosanna, Diana, a Sweet Caroline/I'd even take a Run-Around Sue." Overall, though, these songs aren't intentionally funny enough (and neither do they work as unintentional schlock) to warrant a second listen. Who'd ever think we'd be pining away for "Turkey Song?"

-- Mark Bazer


*** Boyz II Men

EVOLUTION

(Motown)

Although a notch classier than other male R&B harmony groups of the early '90s like Shai and Silk, these four Philadelphia lads were really little better than Boyz to Teenz. By bolstering their sing-song tunes and lovelorn lyrics with overblown arrangements and strained vocals, the group catered to deluded adolescent notions of Manly Love as surely as any West Coast gangsta rapper catered to deluded adolescent notions of Manly Pride.

Now, on this aptly titled third album, they grow up by just chilling out. Granted, the last two cuts blow it with the usual mushy bombast, but the first six offer soft-focus ballads that ply adolescent romanticism with new-found adult restraint, peaking with a sweet Babyface elegy and a terse a cappella reading of an old New Edition hit. And the middle four team the Boyz with current R&B hitmakers like Puffy Combs and Keith Crouch in upbeat, imaginative, sexy numbers that finally hit on the real motherlode of meaning inherent in the group's name. "Rock and roll," they used to call it.

-- Franklin Soults


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