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AUGUST 3, 1998: 

***1/2 Tom Waits



This is an excellent collection from Tom's wild years, that period (1983-'90) when he hooked up with arrangements as strange as his voice -- those rickety-sounding backdrops with a penchant for marimba, or marimba-like percussion. Who'd have thought back in the '70s that this neo-beat croaker would evolve into a somewhat more linear Captain Beefheart? Not me.

The collection also has the virtue of recovering tracks from some of Waits's less riveting albums -- like the Weimar-esque title cut from The Black Rider (though Weimar were never really this weird) and the surprisingly sincere-sounding gospel plea "Down in the Hole," from Frank's Wild Years. Then there are my personal favorites, the sentimental but deranged sounding "You're Innocent When You Dream" and "Downtown Train," which sounds as if he were riffing on the Boss, always a good thing. If you think that 22 cuts by Waits, who recently signed a deal with Epitaph, is a bit much, well, you're right -- but just keep in mind that it's supposed to be funny, and that you're supposed to feel, after a while, that you're the one who's been hitting the sauce and not him.

-- Richard C. Walls

*** The Schramms


(Checkered Past)

In theory, rock and roll will forever remain the domain of the young. But as the hipster population ages, a segment of the over-30 record-buying public will undoubtedly lose interest in baby bands cranking out imitations of music they once loved.

Enter Checkered Past, a Chicago label giving a home to talented musicians who've been around the block a few times, from arcane Americana (Johnny Dowd, Souled American) to the Byrdsy jangle of the Schramms. Dave Schramm's checkered past is an impressive one: a one-time member of Yo La Tengo, the Hoboken guitarist/singer/songwriter has lent his distinct guitar sound (like a slightly less manic Richard Lloyd) to the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Freedy Johnston, and Richard Buckner, in addition to several recordings with the band bearing his name. Dizzy Spell carves deeper into the Schramms' niche, where sonic musings are initiated strictly for the sake of the songs and everyone's content to amble along in Hammond organ and rootsy guitar glory. Schramm's likable melodies may not burn themselves into your brain, but his guitar playing will, and so will the strange appeal of his deep, nasal vocal twang and the insight of his lyrics, all of which Dizzy Spell offers in spades.

-- Meredith Ochs

** Sugar Ray


(Bullseye Blues)

Sugar Ray Norcia is one of the most adept blues lounge lizards around, but it seems he's falling asleep at his barstool on his first solo album since departing Roomful of Blues. He's got the vocal tone and the 'tude on tunes like the strong opener, "Jack, She's on the Ball," and Big Walter's "Need My Baby." (Did I mention that Sugar's a harmonica sharpshooter, too, with a tone wide enough to embrace a whole world's weariness?) But he never gets above mid-tempo here, never injects the kind of high-spirited dynamism that fueled Roomful's party nights. So the whole outing's one-dimensional, and eventually, like an evening of too many martinis, it becomes blurry. This is more a failure of spirit than of performance. Sugar sings well, and the cast includes New England heavyweights Kid Bangham (guitar), Matt McCabe (piano), Marty Ballou (bass), and Doug James (baritone sax), plus visiting vocal bad-asses the Jordanaires. But what's really needed is more varied mixology.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Sarah Cahill


(New Albion)

Ravel is not "new music," but Sarah Cahill's usual repertoire is. Nonetheless, Cahill became so captivated by Ravel's piano pieces that she played nothing else for three years. The result is Ravel read through a new-music lens. In her liner notes Cahill explains that she associates his music most directly with Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman; and indeed, her slow tempos and placid dynamics make these works sound more like Feldman, in particular, than like other music of Ravel's time (the postmodern mystic Giacinto Scelsi also comes to mind). Perhaps because she physically occupied these pieces for so long, Cahill conveys a mood both static and informal, a kind of frozen improvisation. Yet the sinful beauty of Ravel's Impressionism isn't lost on her, and she never lets these pieces dissolve into pretty mush. You may find yourself thinking: why doesn't all music sound like this? Or is it just that Cahill has found a unique way to communicate Ravel's beauty to her contemporaries?

-- Damon Krukowski

**1/2 Grace Jones



Grace Jones's albums have become more and more a matter of style over substance, but on her earliest albums, which are anthologized here, her music had unimpeachable substance concealed within haute couture style. The string of inspired covers she recorded over her first three albums (which she did in the Bahamas with the walloping reggae rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) forms the spine of this two-disc set. Unfortunately, Private Life is as padded as the shoulders of a blouse Jones wore in a famous photo, with 10 extended versions and a couple of dubs for good measure. And the ludicrously overproduced go-go-style "Slave to the Rhythm," from years later, is appended for no good reason.

When Jones is on, though, she's on, turning Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" into a razor-tipped icicle, pulling up the erotic subtext of Bill Withers's "Use Me," making the Normal's car-crash fantasy "Warm Leatherette" even more brutal by the power of suggestion. The tracks she wrote herself are actually among the most effective here: "My Jamaican Guy" spawned the flickering-red-light groove of L.L. Cool J's "Doin' It," and "Living My Life" is an honest, if bitter, statement of purpose for a woman whose carefully constructed image was always threatening to get the better of her.

-- Douglas Wolk

*** CeCe Winans



Don't expect CeCe Winans, of the gospel-singing Winans Family, to perform standard sexpot pop in a watered-down hip-hop vein. Faith's her thing -- "the only thing that you can count on," she tells the listener on Everlasting Love's opener, "Well, Alright!" Winans's quiet songs address you up close; you can almost feel her breath on your shoulder as her voice -- steady and strong in her favored contralto range, and soft like classic Diana Ross, no less, in occasional flights of soprano -- touches the melody where it hurts. As strong as she is sensitive, in "I Am" she takes on the role of the "I who created the whole universe," singing "It's my air you breathe" with only -- but every bit of -- the air she needs to prove her point. As rhythmically appropriate as she is melodic, on the Tony Rich-produced "What About You" she slides as the music does. On "Well, Alright!" she does a little dance to a beat almost as sweet as one of Ultra Naté's. All that's missing is a song that keeps on sliding for longer than a brief few measures -- but not to worry: a club remix of "Well, Alright!" is rumored in the works.

-- Michael Freedberg

*** Catatonia


(Vapor/Warner Bros.)

The first thing you notice when you hear Welsh popsters Catatonia -- actually, it's impossible to avoid noticing -- is lead singer Cerys Matthews. Alternately flirtatious and strident, distinguished by a bad-girl nicotine rasp, Matthews's voice is an intoxicating amalgam of Björk, the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler, Marianne Faithfull, and Kim Wilde. She also rolls her r's in the most delectable way, a talent that's heard to best advantage on the chorus of "Road Rage."

Even such a voice as this wouldn't amount to much without suitable tunes to back it up, and Catatonia have got plenty. "Mulder and Scully," a huge recent British hit, with its cracks about hiring the X-Files crew to solve the mystery of why our heroine's sleeping alone, is something of a novelty number, but its sleek melody keeps you coming back. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics to "I Am the Mob" incorporate every Mafia cliché from horse heads between the sheets to sleeping with the fishes; coupled with a stadium-ready chorus it's positively gleeful. Tracks like "Why I Can't Stand One Night Stands" and "My Selfish Gene" are more subdued but no less engaging.

-- Mac Randall

*** Bonfire Madigan


(Villa Villakula/Kill Rock Stars)

Madigan Shive is a baroque folk-punk diva who loves clashing tone with mood. Her deep, strong voice is soulful when she's wrathful and sexy when she's standoffish. And she plays a mean cello to boot.

On her second album, . . . from the Burnpile, she's joined by bass, lead guitar, drums, and on a couple of tunes a turntable DJ. (The "Bonfire" is there to distinguish this from her solo work.) Her best songs are either catchy or skronky, but when she trades her cello for a guitar, the results can be gratingly sentimental. She's much more fun (and intimidating) when she's incendiary, spouting likes like "Over my dead body/You'll touch me or her," on "Anthemic Amendments." This song should come off as an annoying diatribe, but its hip-hop groove and warm, humming cello make it appealingly funky. On "Snowfell Summer" the moaning cello gives way to prancing pop as she offers comment on our times: "Well-fed, we're apathetic." And she does a better job than most of her post-riot-grrrl contemporaries at nailing down the connection between love and protest with the song "Smoke Signals from the Burnpile," where she serenades a lover with the lines "You are my Joan of Arc/You are my Rosa Parks."

-- Joshua Westlund

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