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By Stewart Mason

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

Robyn Hitchcock Jewels for Sophia (Warner Brothers)

Ironically, given its piecemeal construction -- four producers, several different band lineups -- Jewels for Sophia is Robyn Hitchcock's most cohesive album in more than a decade, gaining immeasurably from its variety. Longtime pals Peter Buck and the Young Fresh Fellows guest on several rollicking tracks, including "Viva Sea-Tac," a snarky ode to the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, the album's two catchiest tracks, "NASA Clapping" and "Sally Was a Legend," feature the rhythm section from the High Llamas and guest guitar solos from Hitchcock's old Soft Boys bandmate, Kimberley Rew.

Most of the rest of the album was produced in Los Angeles by power pop wunderkind Jon Brion, whose subtle, lightly psychedelicized production style, equally influenced by Brian Wilson and George Martin, meshes perfectly with Hitchcock's cannily melodic pop songs. Even nearly solo acoustic tracks like the quietly menacing "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You, Baby" and "Mexican God" have a spacious depth to them largely missing from such previous acoustic Hitchcock albums as I Often Dream of Trains and last year's Storefront Hitchcock.

Hitchcock's lyrics sound revitalized in this new context. Even the unabashedly silly "The Cheese Alarm" is clever enough to be entertaining, and other lyrics reflect Hitchcock's usual obsessions (decay, death and fish) in a new and relatively cliché-free fashion. After many had written him off as a cult performer endlessly retreading the same ground, Jewels for Sophia shows that Robyn Hitchcock has his share of surprises left.

The Minders Cul-de-Sacs and Dead Ends (Elephant 6/SpinArt)

Compiling the four EPs that preceded last year's outstanding Hooray for Tuesday, Cul-de-Sacs and Dead Ends is The Minders' equivalent to the very similar Science Faire by their mentors, The Apples In Stereo. The Portland quartet are more of a standard '90s indie pop band than the retro-obsessed Apples, and only the three excellent tracks produced by The Apples' Robert Schneider sound much like The Minders' debut full-length. On their own, The Minders keep the '60s influences in check and the arrangements pared down. The bongos-and-glockenspiel arrangement of the first half of "Step Right Up" owes more to The Softies than Van Dyke Parks, though the strange extended coda of bird noises and flute recalls the band's Elephant 6 stablemates, the Olivia Tremor Control.

Cul-de-Sacs suffers slightly from the usual problem that afflicts singles compilations. These 17 songs were meant to be heard three and four at a time on 7-inch singles, a format that imposes a much different aesthetic than the full-length album. Taken individually, the songs are excellent, from the sprightly "Hand Me Downs" to the more experimental "Time Vs. Length." But there's no cohesion to the album; the songs simply don't flow very well, and by the album's halfway point, the brief, sparse tunes start to sound more alike than they really are. Although perhaps best heard in small doses, Cul-de-Sacs and Dead Ends is a delightful confection of catchy pop tunes and quirky shoestring production.

The Cherry Orchard The Start of Our Affair (March)

The U.S. debut by British duo The Cherry Orchard starts with "That Summer Feeling," a wonderful slice of mid-'70s AM pop somewhere between the Fifth Dimension's "Last Night (I Didn't Get to Sleep at All)" and Starbuck's "Moonlight Feels Right." The rest of the album continues in this orchestra-and-vibes vein, reaching another peak with an homage to Ms. Sinatra, "Listening to Nancy." Obviously, The Cherry Orchard have exquisite taste in influences. Unfortunately, Jason Smith's lovely melodies are somewhat faceless, and underutilized backing vocalist Sara Onyett has a much more appealing voice than Smith. The album sounds terrific while it's on, pretty orchestral pop not unlike Eric Matthews or the Ladybug Transistor. Sadly, once the record's over, it's difficult to recall much about it. For better and worse, The Cherry Orchard have created the aural equivalent of a Grand Marnier souffle.

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