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AUGUST 2, 1999: 

*** Marty Stuart THE PILGRIM (MCA Nashville)

Here's a concept: a country concept album. Three years after his last release, Nashville singer and renaissance man Marty Stuart, who has often met the gold standard with earlier outings, weaves a relatively simple tale of betrayal and love redeemed over a dozen or so original songs, livening it up with distinctive bells and high-profile whistles. Among the guest whistlers: George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Johnny Cash, and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys. Among the notable bells: famous guitars like a 1955 Fender Esquire that belonged to Cash's original picker, Luther Perkins, a Martin that belonged to Hank Williams Sr., and another Martin owned by Lester Flatt. Beneath all that, Stuart -- a veteran of Cash and Flatt outfits before striking out on his own and now the president of the Country Music Foundation -- wraps a cohesive and pleasant platter around the story of a man who loved, lost, wandered, and wandered back. In between the mildly precious minute-long changes of scenery and a 31-second "Intermission" are several well-crafted cuts, ranging from a good old drinking tune and some thoughtful songwriterly pastiches to beautifully played hillbilly music and predictably polished pieces of Nashville pop rock.

-- Bill Kisliuk


*** Mr. Bungle CALIFORNIA (Warner Bros.)

It wasn't until Mike Patton's success as Faith No More's vocalist got his other band a Warner Bros. contract that the world learned just how weird a guy he is. Mr. Bungle -- that other band -- are half Frank Zappa genius and half Weird Al goofiness. Their first two releases were difficult, puzzlingly appealing romps that blended death metal, lounge, free jazz, polka, funk, and a host of other styles.

California sticks to a Beefheartian approach to music, but there are also a few straight-ahead ballads here. The opening "Sweet Charity" finds Patton laying a sugary Beach Boys melody over Hawaiian slide guitar; "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare" lifts its harmonies straight from "Good Vibrations" before laying on the power chords. Elsewhere, Bungle's trademark insanity rears its intriguing head as "Ars Moriendi" segues from polka to crunchy metal to something that sounds like "Hava Negila" and back again. And the transition in "Goodbye Sober Day" from perky xylophone carnival music to a teeth-gnashing death-metal chant of "chukka chukka chukka" is the kind of pastiche that might put a smile on the face of even an arch avant-gardist like John Zorn.

-- Mike Bruno


*** N.O. FI (Turducken)

Surf and garage rock in New Orleans? Sure enough, here's a roomful of disorderly Crescent City bands who couldn't give two shits about that city's musical traditions -- for these folks, "second line" apparently means something illicit that you do backstage between drinks. Recorded live over the past year, these seven bands pass the garage-cred test: they sound as if they'd found this stuff deep in their hormones instead of learning it all via Back from the Grave CDs. The Royal Pendletons pinch a cover tune from the Lyres' repertoire ("Stormy," originally by the Jesters of Newport). The Ramparts' "Evacuation Route" makes a three-minute distillation of Dick Dale's entire repertoire.

The Pendletons are probably the most established band here (Alex Chilton produced an earlier EP), and they score a coup for digging up the frontman of an obscure '60s band, the Better Half Dozen, to cover their "I'm Gonna Leave" -- a great previously undiscovered girlfriend trasher. Despite their White Zombie connection (bassist Sean Yseult, who didn't make this gig), the Famous Monsters come off like Josie & the Pussycats playing for goth kids; but that's a compliment. Hit of the bunch is the Darkest Hours' "Dedication," with frontman J. Matthew Uhlman doing a Fleshtones-style six-minute monologue in which he brags about everything from the drummer's day job to the Schlitz consumption that nearly gets them booted off stage.

-- Brett Milano


*** Paul Motian TRIO 2000 + ONE (Winter & Winter)

If this sounds like old new jazz, don't blame drummer Motian, since he's one of the guys who invented new jazz, both with the Bill Evans Trio (1959-'64) and the Paul Bley Trio (1963-'64). That is, a collective approach to trio improvisation (Evans, Bley) and loosely defined folkish song structures and free rhythms that nonetheless sustain tension throughout (Bley). The tension is due in part to Motian's earth-fire-air pulse and to the whole band's understanding of how to create climaxes through the strategic use of silence. Electric-bass sage Steve Swallow and young-tenor-of-the-moment Chris Potter round out the trio proper while acoustic bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi alternate as "+ One." Kikuchi's solfeggio grunting is annoying at first, but his deployment of melodic fragments, near-rhapsodic chording, and open space fits the music. Otherwise, there are plenty of details to savor in these concise arrangements: Swallow's guitar-highs and throbbing lows set against Grenadier's rich bowing, Potter's balance of brawn and brains, the various moods the band can explore in a single piece. There's even a closing neo-bop tune for the groove-hungry.

-- Jon Garelick


* SENSE FIELD (Warner Bros.)

On their blandly reductive Warner Bros. debut, Sense Field gracelessly imitate the sensitive "emo" introspection of groups like Karate and Jets to Brazil. Song titles like "War of the Worlds" and "Are You Okay?" suggest despair, but the music delivers unmoving monotony -- strings of fragmented lyrics sung with unconvincing emotion over repetitive verse-chorus-verse structures. Some songs lead off with intriguing, textured intros, but they too digress into predictably pounded guitar-chord fuzz.

Overseen by David Holman, who has produced Bush and No Doubt, Sense Field are an obvious attempt to capitalize on the post-post-punk phenomenon of emo-core. Their CD recalls the mid-'90s break-up of proto-emo indie stars Jawbreaker, who were unable to balance the commercial pressure of being on a major label with the independent-minded honesty that had won them underground acclaim. Sense Field may embody the narrow definition of radio-friendly music, but only after cutting out the sincerity and creativity that Jawbreaker lived and died by.

-- Nick Catucci


*** The American Analog Set THE GOLDEN BAND (Emperor Jones) On their third disc, American Analog Set have dropped another soft-focus mini-epic, delivered straight from their living room to ours. This is sublimely chilled-out music, coolly perfect for taking in a hazy summer sundown. Not quite slowcore (in the turtle-crawl vein of Low), not quite psychedelic (in the loaded, post-Velvets vein of Spiritualized), not quite space-age (in the post-everything vein of Stereolab), this band of home-recording mood merchants draw on all these elements, reconstituting them into something entirely their own. Demonstrating the kind of meticulous care with which they hand-emboss the sleeves of their 45s, AmAnSet augment the languid, snare- and organ-driven drone that marked their previous albums with decorative, subtly crucial touches, like vibes, electric piano, and cello. The beauty here is in the quiet details, like the rustle of fingers sliding along the frets of a guitar on "It's All About Us." A small "whoosh" becomes a crucial part of the rhythm, and even after it's stopped and the tune's unfolded into an expanse of pulsing organ and cymbal-brushed percussion, it keeps framing each measure in your head.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** The Katies (Spongebath/Elektra)

Melodic power pop is hardly the rarest commodity, and the Katies, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, are hardly its most distinctive interpreters. But whereas punk pop's upstarts usually insist on streamlining their radio ditties, the Katies have a cultivated sense of dinosaur-rock gesture: Zeppy unison riffs, Beatlesque major-to-minor chord changes, and dramatic Nazareth-style melodies, with plenty of sloppy edges, rambling drum fills, and dynamic shifts. And under the big-rock exterior there's a dressed-down, grunged-up Jellyfish, or a rural Wondermints, shades of the Plimsouls, Dwight Twilley, Bram Tchaikovsky, the Buzzcocks, and Blondie. Sure, they sound conspicuously like Cheap Trick on the hooky single "Noggin' Poundin'," where singer Jason juggles the spirits of Zander and Lennon. But how do you square the Sonic Youthisms of "Tappin' Out" and the Third Eye Blind vibe of "Drowner"? What's up with the Mudhoney riff on "Miss Melodrama"? I doubt the Katies -- whose Tennessee stomping ground is the buzz scene in power-pop circles lately -- consider the encyclopedic implications of their panoramic pop-pourri; they're much too busy rocking, and you can't do that by the book.

-- James Rotondi


*** WILLIS ALAN RAMSEY (Koch) When first released, in 1972, Willis Alan Ramsey fit snugly into the mellow-funky vibe epitomized by such inconsequential gems as Michael Hurley's Hi-Fi Snock Uptown and Bobby Charles and J.J. Cale's first album. Ramsey's debut, like Cale's, was on Leon Russell's Shelter label; the Texas singer/songwriter had a grasp of jean-jacket poesy and bluesy finger-picking that let you know he was a proud ruralist. Factor in a cavalier studio approach and a mush-mouthed vocal style and you could consider this debut a sub rosa classic -- shaggy-dog style. If Mudslide Slim was a bit too glossy for you, Willis Alan Ramsey was right there wagging its tail.

Almost 30 years later all those qualified compliments are still valid. Alluring nuggets include a conflation of Mike Nesmith's drawl and Furry Lewis's grumble, some rangy jukebox swing, and a sashay through Ramsey's meal ticket, "Muskrat Love." Although I'll disagree with Lyle Lovett's sticker blab about its being one of the greatest albums of all time, I certainly herald Willis Alan Ramsey's return. Wouldn't be nice if Marc Benno's A&M stuff came tumbling by next?

-- Jim Macnie


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