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By Stewart Mason

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

Kirsty MacColl What Do Pretty Girls Do? (Hux)

It's almost unfair the extent to which Kirsty MacColl has been blessed. Her warm, rich alto is one of the greatest voices in pop music history, alternately slurred and sensuous or as pure, innocent and bell-toned as a choirgirl. She's a world-class songwriter equally adept at clever, funny, direct lyrics and heartbreaking melodies. And on top of all that, with her flowing auburn hair, heart-shaped face, enormous coffee-colored eyes and stunning, zaftig body, Kirsty MacColl belongs on any short list of The Sexiest Women in Pop Ever.

A 15-song collection of BBC radio sessions recorded between 1989 and 1995, What Do Pretty Girls Do? (named after one of MacColl's finest songs) is much more interesting than the majority of similar compilations, because these songs differ widely from their studio versions. MacColl's producer/husband, Steve Lillywhite (early U2, etc.), tends to overstuff her studio recordings with all manner of neat sounds and odd instruments buried deep in the spacious mix and overlaid with MacColl's trademark endlessly overdubbed harmony vocals. Nearly half of these live-in-the-studio takes strip the songs down to voice-and-guitar essentials, which helps focus the inherent power of songs like the seething "Free World" and Billy Bragg's "A New England" (here in two versions, solo and as a duet with Bragg, who also guests on the goofy "Darling, Let's Have Another Baby").

The most radically improved song is "My Affair," formerly an over-the-top Latin extravaganza recast here as a near-folky pop song that makes MacColl's wittily snide celebration of adultery sound both funnier and more emotionally honest. The Nick Lowe-like "Caroline" covers the same topic from the perspective of The Other Woman, and is one of the most emotionally complex and catchiest pop songs of the decade. Older songs like "He's on the Beach" and the utterly brilliant rockabilly pastiche "There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" sound equally impressive in these new versions, as does MacColl's plaintive interpretation of Sonny Curtis' country-pop classic, "Walk Right Back." MacColl doesn't record nearly often enough, and this collection is an essential addition to her small handful of masterpieces.

Duke Ellington Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia)

Belatedly making its first CD appearance, 1957's Such Sweet Thunder is one of Duke Ellington's most effective suites, meshing old-fashioned program music with inimitable Ellingtonian grace and swing. A jazz interpretation of the works of Shakespeare commissioned by an Ontario Shakespeare festival, Such Sweet Thunder features such brilliant set pieces as Cat Anderson's suitably crazed trumpet solo in the Hamlet-inspired "Madness In Great Ones" and the twining tenor and alto saxophones of Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges in the heartbreaking "The Star-Crossed Lovers." This brilliantly remastered, exquisitely packaged release includes 10 bonus alternate takes, including an extended first recording of "The Star-Crossed Lovers" that gives new insight into Ellington and collaborator Billy Strayhorn's compositional process. This is a beautifully done reissue of one of Ellington's most underappreciated works.

The Bevis Frond Vavona Burr (Flydaddy)

London-based psych-pop genius Nick Saloman mostly lays off the direct '60s references on his 17th album. Though Saloman's music is inextricably rooted in Carnaby Street-era British pop, Vavona Burr makes little attempt to sound like it was recorded in 1969. It doesn't sound at all contemporary, of course, but the moody, electric piano-driven "Don Lang" and the synth-embroidered "Let It Ride" and "Almost Like Being Alive" are more Steely Dan than Syd Barrett.

There's still the usual off-the-cuff immediacy -- Saloman sneezes in the middle of "One Leg Sand Dance" -- and one-man-band charm, but like last year's North Circular, there's a poppy conciseness here, with only the eight-minute "Begging Bowl" featuring the acid-drenched guitar freakouts that used to regularly dot Bevis Frond releases. Instead, the songs favor catchy melodies and spiraling choruses, like the excellent "You Just Don't Feel That Way About Me." If you've been hesitant to dive into the Bevis Frond's enormous oeuvre, Vavona Burr is an excellent introduction.

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