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APRIL 13, 1998: 

*** The Sky Cries Mary

FRESH FRUITS FOR THE REVOLUTION

(World Domination)

This collection of unreleased and remixed "rarities" splits into almost seamless thirds: a mid-'80s noise introduction, a meandering psychedelic-rock middle, and a pattering drum 'n' dub bass conclusion. Although characteristic of a band who periodically transfigure (rarely a popular move among non-Madonna fans), the curious mix does more to suggest temperamental confluence than ruptured identity as it spans the Seattle band's decade-plus career. The Swans-y ponderous portion pokes these ears the most deeply, perhaps because of the scarcity of that sound these days. Yet the metamorphoses, minimal vocals, drone, bombastic bursts, and controlled melodrama form threads of consistency. The voices of Roderick J. Walgamott Romero and Anissa Romero (as well as celluloid samples) usually come up from under the music, massaging flatly impassioned tones somewhere between Daniel Ash and Stevie Nicks. It's not clear what the disc's title is meant to imply, though considering the hallucinogenic disposition of the whole affair, we could say the revolution is an inward one. On the outward front, the catchy sound is smoothly persuasive and evolutionary, not revolutionary.

-- Chesley Hicks


* Sly & Robbie

FRIENDS

(EastWest)

Here is (arguably) reggae's mightiest rhythm section doing what they do worst: streamlining reggae into mainstream pop. Fifteen songs, and only two ("You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and "Night Nurse") boast memorable melody and lyrics. But the worst weaknesses are vocal. Guest singer Mick Hucknell of Simply Red turns the exquisite erotic lassitude of Gregory Isaacs's "Night Nurse" into a sexless and simpering ditty. An equally puzzling cameo comes from UB40 frontman Ali Campbell's thin and reedy voice.

The best moments are Sly's & Robbie's. The flirtation with hip-hop beats on "Friday" is winning, and there's a killer bass line giving an edge to the campy "Theme from Mission Impossible." Still, listen closely and you'll pick up on an unsettling sameness, a blandness in the mix. At the very least, this pair of reggae vets need to find some new "friends" to hand the vocals to.

-- Norman Weinstein


*** Richard Davies

TELEGRAPH

(Flydaddy)

Back when he was collaborating with Eric Matthews in Cardinal, singer/songwriter Richard Davies got a reputation for orch-pop, a shorthand term for pop with strings and such. The two albums he's released since, however, have been sparse affairs dominated by acoustic guitar and piano, with nary a violin in earshot.

Telegraph is by far the most accessible, much more so than 1996's chilly There's Never Been a Crowd like This. Chiming 12-string guitars give a warm psychedelic glow to "Cantina." And the loose groove at the end of "Confederate Cheerio Call" has a lived-in feel that's a new and welcome addition to the Davies style. Davies himself remains idiosyncratic and unpredictable: "Evergreen" features some odd harmonic twists, and "Eye Camera" trails off into a delicate bridge that never resolves. I haven't a clue what to make of lyrics like "Before an eagle has an accident/Please send in for an ambulance" ("Main Street Electrical Parade"). But the sound of the words matches the music so well that it doesn't matter.

-- Mac Randall


*** Propellerheads

DECKSANDDRUMSANDROCKANDROLL

(DreamWorks)

If the Crystal Method were initially greeted as America's answer to the Chemical Brothers, then it wouldn't be too far off to welcome Propellerheads as England's response to the Crystal Method. An electro-dynamic duo with roots in Britain's DJ culture, the Props have been known to one-up the frenetic live performances of LA's house-hardened Crystal boys by adding live drums, bass, and Hammond organ to their four-turntable attack. None of which matters much on CD, where DJs Alex Gifford and Will White are just as loopy, floppy, and, well, synthetic as the next techno outfit.

But where the Chems are BPM junkies and the Method just wanna sample you into submission, Propellerheads are down with the old school, as in hip-hop science class and the Hipster Comp 101 soundtracker John Barry. DECKSANDDRUMS offers a lot of the former, including a boisterous cameo by De La Soul and a middling one from the dispirited Jungle Brothers, and a tasteful taste of the latter, including an amusing cut-and-paste collaboration with James Bond composer David Arnold (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) and a guest spot by Shirley Bassey, the Welsh singer who sang the themes to Goldfinger. and Diamonds Are Forever. The name of that tune: "History Repeats."

-- Matt Ashare


*** Mary Coughlan

AFTER THE FALL

and

LIVE IN GALWAY

(V2/Big Cat)

Art music firmly rooted in enduring themes is rare these days, but that's part of the steadfast brilliance this Irish singer displays on her two most recent recordings. Both live and in studio, Coughlan wraps her alto around words with the passion of a seasoned storyteller imparting indelible truths. Which she often is. On After the Fall, songs like the tale of original sin "Woman Undone" and the low-key epic "My Land Is Too Green" impart an ironic existentialist's view that makes slight offerings like the bawdy story "Lucy's Dream" seem petty. The most affecting number in this deep pool of work may be "Johnny Fell Off the Work-Around," a painful and emotionally rich take on the dissipation of a family under the crush of long-term unemployment.

Both live and in the studio Coughlan demands virtuoso, spare support that lets her work her phrases until they ring with character. Guitars add country-music flourishes, the pianos and accordions are always contemplative, and the traditional instruments like whistle and uilleann pipes are pared back enough to flavor the music without binding the arrangements to Celtic-folk clichés. The result is something akin to ambient cabaret music. Coughlan may prove to be the Lotta Lenya of the '90s.

-- Ted Drozdowski


***1/2 John Zorn

THE CIRCLE MAKER

(Tzadik)

Composer John Zorn's investigations of Jewish spirituality have led to some of his most sober, powerful work, often with his "harmolodic klezmer" quartet Masada, who play Ornette Coleman-style improvisations on themes drawn from the minor-key modalities of traditional Jewish music. Last year's stunning Bar Kokhba had pieces from the Masada catalogue arranged more formally for small chamber groups -- strings, horns, keyboards; and the Masada String Trio of violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and bassist Greg Cohen is now a going concern as well.

The Circle Maker is really two discs of chamber Masada pieces bound together: Issachar features the String Trio, and Zevulun augments that group with electric-guitarist Marc Ribot (playing with an elegant, understated tone that recalls Santo & Johnny) and percussionists Cyro Baptista and Joey Baron. Zorn's love for noise comes through in subdued, startling ways, like the hair-raising violin harmonics and cymbal swells of Zevulun's "Laylah"; occasionally, it's offset by his love of kitsch, including corny quotes from "Für Elise" and the James Bond theme. Mostly, though, Zorn's arrangements are tart, spare, and refreshing. His musicians are versatile, the supple strings temper the barbed oddity of some of the writing, and Zorn's short pieces for the String Trio, in particular, are among the most likable and controlled things he's done to date.

-- Douglas Wolk


*** Ernest Ranglin

MEMORIES OF BARBER MACK

(Island Jamaica Jazz)

Still think Jamaican guitar is all "um-chekka, um-chekka"? Not for guitarist Ernest Ranglin, whose pedigree stretches back before the birth of ska, when the Afro-Cuban flavored "mento" beat ruled Kingston. Dedicated to mento sax legend Rudolph "Barber Mack" McDonald, Ranglin's latest instrumental disc reaffirms his status as the seminal Jamaican ska and jazz guitarist with pecky, bebop-approved tones supporting bluebeat stomps, dub grooves, and danceable reggae ballads, all fleshed out by Sly Dunbar's dead-on hi-hat and snare and a tasteful acoustic bass, piano, and percussion section. Ranglin has more in common with jazz greats like Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian than with latter-day reggae sidemen like Earl "Chinna" Smith. Memories of Barber Mack finds him drawing on quick, snappy runs, gypsy jazz slurs, hooky melodies, and grand, wrist-flapping flourishes -- plus, of course, the occasional "um-chekka, um-chekka."

-- James Rotondi


**1/2 Drill Team

HOPE AND DREAM EXPLOSION

(Reprise)

Drill Team do the best Radiohead impersonation I've ever heard on "Stars Fly" and "Sorrow Marry Me." The abundance of textural flourishes and sonic details give what would otherwise be garden-variety alterna-guy rock some distinctive color. A pretty melody buoys "Peppermint," rescuing it from Bush-league lyrics like "Let me sip your arrogance/Back and forth my mind relents/To taste your crime." From earnest frontguy Michael Long's emoting to guitarist Timothy LaRue's dramatic playing, the sentiment and the sound of Hope and Dream Explosion -- epic, expansive, and loaded with plenty of sing-along choruses -- make Drill Team an outfit genetically engineered for arenas. Fortunately, the band steer clear of turgid balladry, choosing a much more palatable, Posies style of power pop.

-- Jonathan Perry



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