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SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

Freedy Johnston Blue Days, Black Nights, (Elektra)

Going against the generational zeitgeist of sound over sense, of soundscape over song, Freedy Johnston is a songwriter of old-school craft and inspiration -- an architect of deceptively modest vignettes marked by novelistic detail and cinematic sweep. "Underwater Life" is exhibit "A." The lead track on his new album, Blue Days, Black Nights, it immediately puts the listener in the kind of place you won't find in many pop songs: in a ramshackle boat with a hobo. Johnston's old man of the sea sails alone, collecting recyclables and enduring insults until the miraculous happens: He discovers Atlantis, right there beneath his boat. Does he tell anyone? No. He just goes to the spot every night, drops sail, and dreams himself to sleep.

Among Johnston's many strengths is a commendable penchant for lyrics that value the literal and concrete. On "While I Wait for You," he catalogs the objects left behind by an ex like George Jones giving a "Grand Tour" of his home after a divorce. "Moving on a Holiday" gets all the details right in describing the kind of ordinary experience that is rarely written about in a pop song -- the act of sweeping the floor as the last thing before moving, the lightness of your key ring after turning in your apartment/house keys.

In the early days, Johnston's easily synopsized backstory -- that he sold his interest in his family's Kansas farm to finance studio time -- garnered as much attention as did his music. That bit of self-mythmaking kicked off the semi-legendary 1992 breakthrough Can You Fly, with its memorable opening line, "Well I sold the dirt to feed the band." But when the same story was referenced on 1994's This Perfect World, it started to sound like shtick. So it was refreshing to hear Johnston abandon the confessional mode completely on 1997's Never Home, a collection of disparate sketches and skewed stories that came on as a Midwestern rival to that monument of singer/songwriterdom Randy Newman's 12 Songs. But if Never Home is all over the map -- the unrepentant shoplifter of "On the Way Out," the paranoid UFO-watcher of "Something's Out There," the poor guy devastated by a pregnancy scare in "If It's True" -- Blue Days, Black Nights is positively streamlined.

The men on Blue Days, Black Nights lead lives of quiet desperation, with loneliness the record's recurrent motif. More than half of the album's songs are narrated by men dwelling on women who have either left or who are on the verge, ranging from "Caught as You Look Away," where the protagonist studies a snapshot of his long-gone mother holding him as an infant, to "Emily," where a man meets his girlfriend in a dream and she walks on by. But the real heartbreaker is "The Farthest Lights," where an astronomer gives a lecture outside his home and catches his soon-to-be-estranged wife peeking expressionless out the window. The song, which captures the man's inchoate sentiments as he muses on the relative distance of the stars he dotes on and the wife he's losing, is one of Johnston's best. Another moment of grace from rock's finest contemporary storyteller.

-- Chris Herrington

The Neckbones The Lights Are Getting Dim (Fat Possum)

Lord God, Billy Bob, how did this wonderful punk band spring from the wilds of Oxford, Mississippi, and land on the Fat Possum label, with its stable of raw bluesmen? The Lights Are Getting Dim, The Neckbones' second release, is full of just such surprises.

A few tracks in, just when you have them pegged as aficionados of the early California punk scene (their wanton humor makes the Dead Kennedys spring to mind), they come up with something that really throws you off kilter. Thus, "Ocean of Blue" sounds like the Pixies playing backup for Richard Hell of the Voidoids, and "Reckless Night" resembles a drunken collaboration between Jerry Lee Lewis and the Clash, complete with full body slam piano and Joe Strummer yelps. And if the members of Mott the Hoople had grown up in Mississippi, "Possum Breath" would be the logical result. The best tunes here, like this one, almost manage to straddle the chasm between pop and punk. To top it off, the lachrymose closing song is a dirt-track acoustic number with fiddle and mandolin that sounds like it got stuck on the wrong album. Along the way, you hear snatches of the Ramones, early Elvis Costello, Bo Diddley, and the Stooges, among others.

Although they have a definite garage band aura of sloppiness, and their subject matter deals exclusively with excesses (or the lack thereof), the Neckbones can play. If in doubt, just listen closely to the rolling drum, bass, and guitar structure that underpins the frenetic opener or the deranged-but-inspired fretwork of "Doubletime." -- Lisa Lumb

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