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By Michael Henningsen and Claire Nettleton

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

Martin Sexton The American (Atlantic)

The immediate question Martin Sexton's major label debut begs is, "Why?" Why, after years of struggling, touring and blowing the minds of singer-songwriter fans nationwide, would a musician as uncompromising as Sexton turn over the artistic reins to corporate music bigwigs? The corollary to the old "You can't polish a turd" adage is "Why fuck with perfection?" Yet, on The American, Sexton has allowed his genius to be stomped on by a bevy of studio musicians and big time producer Danny Kortchmar. In the beginning, it was Sexton and his guitar, cleverly shadowing his unique lyrical insight with boundless vocal ability and magical stage presence. At his major label juncture, the original has been effectively reduced to a mere shadow of the artist amid forced arrangements and overbearing electric guitar. His saving grace here could have been the trio of songs taken from the previously released Black Sheep (Eastern Front) and a single stunner from his In the Journey EP ("Glory Bound," "Candy" and "Love Will Keep us Together," and "The Way I Am," respectively). But Sexton, one must believe, was coerced into grandiose recuttings, even down to the vocal tracks, leaving the songs familiar to longtime fans languishing in a mire of the overwrought.

To his credit, Sexton's new material--most of which contains a "railroad songs" aesthetic--is fitting given the album's title. And despite being overrun by studio musicians and wizardry, his voice is still impeccable. What's missing is the purity of soul that marked his two previous releases. The American makes it painfully obvious that Sexton is not a bandleader, his vital music incongruous to the ensemble ethos.

Sexton is a solo artist to his very core--there's not a rock band in the world who could successfully force his music into a higher realm of perfection. It's a shame that Sexton was drawn into the dream in return only for a convenient "file under" tag. To be certain, here is an artist vital to Americana. But The American is likely and unfortunately destined only for the obscurity that allows corporate record retailers to quickly stock their shelves by black-and-white genre category while the artists cry tears over impending bargain bin careers. Thankfully, Black Sheep is still available. But chances are, your friendly Sam Goody clerk will have to special order it for you. ¡ 1/2 (MH)

The Graduates Up in Downtown (Beatville)

Although the cover image depicting a buxom waitress provocatively spiking drinks can be a tad, ahem ... intimidating, the music to be found on the Graduates newest release, Up in Downtown, proves to be astoundingly user friendly. With inklings of '50s style rock and massive doses of swaying horns, this album is fantastically fun and definitely danceable. Up in Downtown contains 13 tracks, all geared toward either alcohol or loved ones, and includes a peppy hidden song.

The Graduates' bizarre swing undertones (sometimes hinting at those of David Byrne of the Talking Heads) combined with cute and zany lyrics, weaves humor into mainstream ska. Check out "Chuck," a song dedicated to Charlie Brown that, had it come into existence a few decades ago, would probably be featured on every '50s diner juke box nationwide. Also noteworthy, "Sadness" contains hip-hop beats that would make even Puff-Daddy jealous. The album also consists of an electric version of the famous swing tune, "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Benny Goodman However, instead of ending on an advertisement for chocolate chip cookies, the song leads into the skank-evoking track, "Cosmonaut."

The name the Graduates is fitting because of the band's youth, 20 being the members' median age. After forming in 1997, the Graduates have opened for Cherry Poppin' Daddies, The Toasters, and other well-known ska and swing bands. The band now plans to tour nationally starting in '99. With lead singer Chad Ethridge's roaring growls and sugary melodies, the Graduates ensure that not all Dallas youngin's are twangy cowboys. ¡¡(CN)

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