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MARCH 20, 2000: 

**1/2 VUE (Sub Pop)

It's hard not to hear the echoes of the Replacements on Vue's Sub Pop debut, because Vue singer/guitarist Rex Shelverton has that same scrubbed-raw vocal tone that was once Paul Westerberg's calling card. And though Shelverton never approaches anything resembling a Westerbergian insight with his lyrics, there's also something about the way Vue's lead guitar rubs dissonantly against the otherwise standard garage-rock riffage that brings to mind the exuberant and sometimes comical mess that was the early, Bob Stinson-era Replacements.

But what Johnny Thunders punk rock was to the 'Mats, goth rock is to San Francisco's Vue -- the grungy goth that came outta suburban garages in the early '80s, not the studio-polished atmospheric goth of today's doom generation. At its best, this predilection finds Vue imbuing murky swamp-blooze guitarisms with a smoky sexiness -- reverb-drenched six-string chordings and low-in-the-mix keyboards, for example, provide a silky casing for workmanlike riffs in "The Shame" and "Cotton Kisses." At their worst . . . well, let's just say that Bauhaus ripoffs aren't half as fun as Nuge ones. -- Lorne Behrman

*** Tara MacLean PASSENGER (Nettwerk/Capitol)

It must be so annoying to be compared to another artist, particularly one who may be more acclaimed but -- you are convinced -- is no more talented. So we can sympathize with Tara MacLean if she's dubbed the new Jewel. Her second album is a richer, less folky (way less folky), more varied release than Jewel has yet to put voice to. You'll hear the comparison stick in the album's more singer-songwriterly moments, like "Jordan" and "Higher," the latter hymnal-styled but blurring the line between religious and romantic passion. Mostly, though, MacLean journeys through atmospheric pop like opener "Jericho," an uneasy song whose forceful drumming is twinned with her sweet plangent voice. Indeed, there isn't a song here that doesn't have instrumental twists. Whether that's the work of a keen producer or MacLean's devising is hard to say, but with such off-the-wall pitchings as the percussive voodoo dance of the disc's hidden track, Passenger is a vocalist's album rather than a folky singer/songwriter's. And there's absolutely no yodeling. -- Linda Laban

*** Steely Dan TWO AGAINST NATURE (Warner Bros.)

It's refreshing that Steely Dan have a small controversy flap going over the current single "Cousin Dupree." Yep, this tale of an aging rocker's lust for his young cousin is sordid and slightly offensive. It's also funny as hell, delivered with a hip swagger that's wonderfully ill-suited to the come-ons in the lyric. And for a band who once wrote a love song that included the line "I may never walk again," it's entirely in character.

So is the rest of the album. In terms of style and continuity, it could have been released any time during the 20 years since Gaucho and would have still sounded like a step forward. The band's obsession with studio craft hasn't lessened: listening to the austere arrangements here, you could easily believe the reports that they spend the first two years of each album just getting a drum sound. But this one swings in a way that the last couple of Steely Dan albums didn't. The title track is the closest they've ever gotten to funk, and Walter Becker's guitar solos suggest he's been listening to the Meters (they've jettisoned the metal dude who played guitar on the '90s tours). And their sensibility is more twisted now than it was originally: "Gaslighting Abby" is a jolly tune about a guy and his new girlfriend's efforts to freak out his ex; "What a Shame About Me" could be the hero of "Deacon Blues" after 20 years and even less success. Still, the closing "West of Hollywood" ranks as one of the first truly joyful moments in the Steely Dan catalogue -- unless the irony is so subtle that nobody's caught it yet. -- Brett Milano

***1/2 Sax Gordon YOU KNOCK ME OUT (Bullseye Blues & Jazz)

Gordon Beadle sexes up his saxophone all over this strong CD, with a big tone that leers and cheers -- and sheds some tears -- through 13 tunes. The Boston-based blues MVP rekindles the slow burn and the fireworks of the late-'40s/early-'50s honkers and wailers -- players like Big Jay McNeeley and Red Prysock and Noble Watts, with a little bit of King Curtis thrown in for soul on instrumentals like the hangover hazy "Crawling Home." Beadle's got a sense of humor that comes across most obviously in the few tunes with lyrics, like the musician's lament "20 Dollar Gig" and the title track, which is sung by a chorus of Beadle, guitarist Duke Robillard, and the most recent ex-Roomful of Blues vocalist, Sugar Ray Norcia. But it's also audible in the giddy joy he sprays all over the fast numbers, like "Speed Rack" and Watts's "90 MPH."

Still, for the old-timers Beadle models his surly and sensuous sound upon, life was more than inspiring strippers and walking the bar for tips. So when he dips into Red Tyler's "Lonely for You" or the gospel-sauced "Tino's Dream," he plays straight from the heart. His debut as a leader, Have Horn Will Travel, was spotty. This time Beadle emerges as the leading torchbearer of the sax-fired music that became rock and roll. -- Ted Drozdowski

** Ryuichi Sakamoto CINEMAGE (Sony Classical)
* Ryuichi Sakamoto BTTB (Sony Classical)

Back in the day, movies had minimal credits: the star, the writer, the producer and the director, and the guy who wrote the music. In those days we thought of it as "background music," not a "score." A handful of masters -- Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, for example -- got noticed, the former for heightening the drama of a scene, the latter for adding an ironic distance between the viewer and the on-screen action. But most movie music went unnoticed, as it was supposed to.

On Cinemage, Ryuichi Sakamoto revisits and reinvents some of the film music he's written since 1982, and the visual element is missed. There are bright spots, including David Sylvian's anguished vocals on "Forbidden Colours," but most of the pieces here -- "Last Emperor," "Little Buddha," "Wuthering Heights" -- either drown in a romantic sweep of percussion and brass or try to seduce your emotions with string charts that pant and heave like the breasts of a romance novel's heroine. The art of film music is a subtle one, and when a score calls attention to itself, it isn't doing its job. Sakamoto's works so well in its proper context that it's not really worth hearing any other way.

The Sakamoto solo piano compositions that are collected on the new BTTB (i.e., "Back to the Basics") have, oddly, the same problem -- except they've got no film to fall back on. This is largely new-agey background music, with a bit of Mozart keyboard twinkle here and a bit of Satie-like dissonance there. All in all, it lacks the tension and humor that have made Sakamoto's pop work so inventive and enjoyable. -- J. Poet

*** Kenny Barron SPIRIT SONG (Verve)

Perhaps better known as a sideman, especially with Stan Getz in the last years of the saxophonist's life, pianist Barron is also an authoritative leader. On his sixth album for Verve, he shows his full range. There are medium-uptempo swingers with sleek arrangements (the opening "The Pelican"); there's a ballad feature for Regina Carter's violin ("Um Beijo") plus stunning duets with tenor-saxophonist David Sanchez (McCoy Tyner's "Passion Flower") and guitarist Russell Malone (the Barron original "And Then Again"). The arrangements and the sensibilities of Barron's cohort give each piece a distinctive character -- Eddie Henderson's varied phrasing and delicate mute work on Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower," Sanchez's mix of power and restraint throughout, the leader's command of seamless single-note runs and percussive attacks. But it's Malone who seems to give Barron the biggest lift. The tonally ambiguous title track, with its conga rhythms, dissonant keyboard splashes, and sprightly unison line for piano and guitar, takes off into brightly colored abstraction, and Malone's off-center chords ring out like Blood Ulmer on bebop. -- Jon Garelick

** CoCo Lee JUST NO OTHER WAY (550/Epic)

No longer a parochial battlefield, contemporary pop is a playground of misplaced signifiers. Take CoCo Lee: Hong Kong-born and Bay Area-raised; first language Cantonese, though she's long since forgotten it; returned to Asia following high school and became a huge pop star, recording a dozen Mandarin-language records in five years. Now Sony has chosen her to break Asians into the American pop mainstream by pitching her as a pop/R&B diva with b-girl tendencies.

Got it? Well, neither do the Sony honchos, who seem to think that naive sexuality will suffice to sell CoCo to the masses. Orientalism does seem to be making a comeback, and what better combination than to add silly Ebonic affectations into the mix! If CoCo had any sort of commanding voice, her crossover might well be legitimate, but instead she comes off as the Asian Jennifer Lopez, getting by on T&A instead of good A&R. At best, she suggests a mellower Paula Abdul, her sound a mix of floating Asian-pop balladry and generic club beats with a R&B twist. "All Tied Up in You" is her best moment, an understated love song with clever imagery. Although CoCo is being presented as the cultural polyglot, beneath the surface she's a victim of the same old songs. -- Jon Caramanica

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