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By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

Arcwelder Everest (Touch and Go)

To put it plainly, I'd rather listen to Arcwelder's Scott MacDonald sing than just about any other indie rocker out there, with the possible exception of Mark Lanegan. And it's MacDonald's monotone drone of a voice that catapults his band's latest from relative Arcwelder obscurity into or very near the realm of one of the best records of the year. That may not sound like much in the way of a compliment, but the moment MacDonald intones, "You were floating/Awash in your sea/Where does that leave me?" on Everest's lead track, you just know that you're in for an emotional assault that'll have you trying desperately to remember why you get involved in relationships in the first place.MacDonald, along with brothers Rob and Bill Graber on bass/vocals and guitar, respectively, formed Tilt-a-Whirl in 1988, but soon changed their name to Arcwelder (the title of an instrumental track that appeared on 1990's This) after the carnival ride manufacturer of the Tilt-a-Whirl threatened to sue. The following year, 1991, spawned Arcwelder's second release for Minneapolis label Big Money, Inc., the aptly titled Jacket Made in Canada. By 1992, Arcwelder's brand of grinding, minor chord rock had garnered critical acclaim, made them regional heroes (read: Minnesota and other cold states) and raised some eyebrows among the folks at Touch and Go.

Newly signed to Chicago's iconic indie label, Arcwelder released Pull in 1993 and then began an unfortunate spiral into mediocrity that took a turn for the better with 1996's Entropy. Three years later, we find Arcwelder slightly more mature and determined to make their ultimate musical statement. And considering that Bill Graber began his musician's life never having played electric guitar, they've succeeded on more than one level.

Everest is steeped in the same urgency as Entropy, but there's more passion here, and MacDonald's vocals have become more central to their overall slightly sinister sound. Strange chordal figures and MacDonald's relentlessly syncopated drumming only heighten the effect. If you got bored with Arcwelder's previous catalog, Everest is a great place to start afresh and recapture some of that old, forlorn indie rock magic.

Robert Lamm In My Head (Mystic Music)

As expected, Robert Lamm's third solo CD, In My Head, is an amalgam of musical styles. Just like his work with Chicago, Lamm incorporates ballads, jazz, pop and rock elements on the 10 cuts. Surprisingly, being that he is the keyboard/piano wizard in Chicago, he plays no keyboards at all on the CD. Also, there are no horns, another Chicago trademark. This leaves Lamm with vocal duties, which he shares with the remarkable Phoebe Snow on two cuts and the Beach Boys' dearly departed Carl Wilson on another. Lamm has a pleasant, mellow voice, which is not as gritty or soulful as it was on the first Chicago album. He seems at his best vocally when pushed by another serious vocalist like Snow. On their duet, "The Best Thing," Snow pushes Lamm into the most soulful performance on the CD. Another vocal highlight of the disc is "Will People Ever Change." Without consciously trying, Lamm sounds a lot like Alex Ligertwood (Brian Auger and Santana).

To his credit, Lamm wrote all but one song of 10 on the CD. The collection is titled In My Head, but make no mistake -- it's obvious that Lamm has written many of these songs from the heart. Songs like the aforementioned "The Best Thing," "The Love of My Life", "Standing at Your Door," "Swept Away" and "The Love You Call Your Own" are love songs through and through.

The production and musicianship on In My Head are impeccable. Everything falls right into place, and the vocals are mixed up front, where they belong. Although I was expecting a grittier, more soulful, keyboard- dominated disc from Lamm, his latest is a very pleasant 42-minute listening experience.

It's hard to separate Robert Lamm from Chicago and the Chicago sound. After all, on the first album it was clear that he was the leader and musical force of the band. If you like Chicago without the horns and sans Peter Cetera, you'll like this album. It should have been titled In My Heart. That seems to be the place from where this music is coming. -- Putnay Thomas

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