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DECEMBER 15, 1997: 

** Ugly Beauty

SWEETNESS

(Atlantic)

The NYC-based trio Ugly Beauty, who feature former Cell guitarist Jerry DiRenzo, are still in the process of discovering their own sound on Sweetness, their debut for Atlantic. Their goal seems to be a kind of organic, fluid, jangly rock with a dream-pop center, something they achieve on "The Only Heroine." Elsewhere, singer Christy Schnabel's voice is the group's defining feature, and it wanders from sexy Debbie Harry belting ("Bring Me Flowers") to heavy, narcotic refrains ("Seven Days") to an almost giddy B-52's-like chorus on "Endless Stream." She pours out vain, bittersweet lyrics with an authority alluring enough to make you forgive Ugly Beauty's growing pains, which amount to getting stuck too often in the mid-tempo doldrums and never really settling into a style they can call their own. Sweetness is a promising enough introduction to a band who seem to be on the right path.

-- Cathy Miner


*** Tobin Sprout

MOONFLOWER PLASTIC (WELCOME TO MY WIGWAM)

(Matador)

Hard to tell whether former Guided by Voices guy Tobin Sprout just got tired of being second in command to Robert Pollard or whether newborn twins had something to do with his departure from the best damn Merseybeat group ever to come out of Dayton, Ohio. To judge by his two solo discs, 1996's breezy Carnival Boy and the new Moonflower Plastic, it was the former. Both discs are marvels of spirit and songcraft, the work of a pop obsessive creating whole worlds in miniature.

Sprout is weaning himself off his four-track -- he recorded half of Moonflower at a pro studio. But there's still blessedly little polish applied to his compendium of daydreams. And there doesn't need to be: these songs sparkle and shine all by themselves. Sprout, who plays every instrument here except drums, puts his appealingly fragile voice to good use, streaming his melodies like silk flags across the charming popscapes of the fizzy "All Used Up," "Get Out of My Throat," and the aviation-themed "Hit Junky Dives." Although it remains to be seen whether he'll rejoin GBV (whose line-up tends to shift anyway), Sprout is, in fact, being true to his old band's moniker. He's trusting in a wise, liberating voice -- his own.

-- Jonathan Perry


***1/2 Stephen Drury

FREDERIC RZEWSKI, THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!

(New Albion)

This is a showpiece in an almost Liszt-like vein -- Rzewski takes a popular protest melody from Argentina and spins it into nearly an hour's worth of variations that hold your attention, maintain a connection to the original melody, and never violate the spirit of the original song. A tour de force for the composer, who betrays his background as a pianist in his thorough use of the instrument, and also for the performer, pianist Stephen Drury, who plays with an intense calm that is perfectly matched to these intellectual variations on an emotional theme. The CD opens with a brilliant gambit as well: a recording of the song performed in its original setting of Argentina 1975. If what follows weren't as genuine and meaningful as the original, this idea would have destroyed the release. Instead we witness both as expressions of truth -- what a victory for formal experiment!

-- Damon Krukowski


***1/2 Odetta

ONE GRAIN OF SAND

(Vanguard)

Like Sweet Honey in the Rock and the late Paul Robeson, Odetta booms out centuries of black oppression and injustice. Yet deep dignity is a cornerstone of her art. With only bassist Bill Lee (father of Spike) to accompany her powerful voice and acoustic guitar, this heavily traditional reissue presents the early-'60s folk boom at its best: passionate performance, arresting songs, and the immaculate Vanguard sound.

Odetta's tight vocal control here reflects her early operatic training in a Marian Anderson style. Years away was the relaxed freeing up of her voice that she displayed recently at the Regattabar with the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. And on the subject of freedom, lines like "Moses, Moses, don't let King Pharaoh overtake you" speak to escaping slaves in the ante-bellum South as much as to the children of Israel. Although the disc transcends racial lines, it still bursts with the dreams and despair of bygone black America.

-- Bruce Sylvester


***1/2 John Fahey & Cul de Sac

THE EPIPHANY OF GLENN JONES

(Thirsty Ear)

These sessions became more trial than epiphany for Jones, Cul de Sac's guitarist, when his longtime hero Fahey -- fresh from a 10-year bout with Epstein-Barr syndrome -- proved unwilling to play the material the Cambridge-based band had prepared. Plans thus shattered, the anarchic improvised music here evolved from thin air. And it's wonderful -- slowly unraveling, taking covert thematic twists and scaling plateaus and valleys of dynamics while straddling rock, jazz, and various Latin- and African-based strains. Cul de Sac provide a warm mesh that cradles Fahey's explorations on electric and acoustic guitar. Pieces like the rambling "Tuff" and "Gamelan Collage" rumble in a ruminative mix of Neil Young, Eleventh Dream Day, and Harry Partch. Fahey's playing is full of grace and dignity; his patiently chiseled notes are loaded with importance. And Cul de Sac interweave electronics, tape samples, and an out sense of reverence with Fahey in a way that preserves the music's power and imagination from oversaturation.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**1/2 EPMD

BACK IN BUSINESS

(Def Jam)

There are no precedents in hip-hop for the astounding first half of this comeback album. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, EPMD's thick-tongued boasts and cold-eyed disses set the stage for the cinematic polish of the West Coast gangstas that followed. But now that Compton has finally surrendered the spotlight, the duo's original raw, slo-mo style is being revived by a new generation of East Coast rappers. And this revival seems to have inspired the originators with the kind of wizened zeal that fired up Pere Ubu on their 1988 reunion The Tenement Year, or Dylan on his 1975 comeback Blood on the Tracks. Alas, after steadily pumping out a stream of hard funk samples, infectious catch phrases, and amusing pop-culture references both new and old, the old-timers poop out, leaning on guest raps by overeager disciples, remakes of old hits, and a sideshow dose of horror-core. Precedents to this kind of worn-out filler are plentiful, from any genre you care to denigrate.

-- Franklin Soults


*** Common

ONE DAY IT'LL ALL MAKE SENSE

(Relativity)

Since his 1992 debut as Common Sense (a California band sued the "Sense" away), this Chicago-based MC has established himself as a top-notch wordsmith with a soft spot for family and an increasingly socially conscious bent. The nonconfrontational words, plus the spottiness of his early beats, were one-time commercial handicaps. But on One Day It'll All Make Sense, the rapper's third CD, the musical backdrop has been improved with jazz-flavored live instrumentation and fuller production on numbers like "Stolen Moments," which adroitly bounces from scratches to strings. The list of guest vocalists reflects Common's diversity, including soulful crooning from Erykah Badu and Fugee Lauryn Hill, poetry from Malik Yusef, and smooth rap from De La Soul and the ubiquitous Q-Tip. The best cameo, however, belongs to Lonnie Lynn (a/k/a Common's dad), who reprises his role from 1994's Resurrection. His appearance marks a touching finale to a smart album rooted in family affairs.
-- Jay Ruttenberg


*** Chuck Brodsky

LETTERS IN THE DIRT

(Red House)

Chuck Brodsky takes few chances on his second album, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He relies on straightforward narratives, simple hooks and melodies, and a soft-spoken if occasionally wry approach for these dozen well-crafted, mostly acoustic originals, adding two more baseball-themed tunes to his repertoire: "The Ballad of Eddie Klepp," the nifty tale of the first ballplayer to cross the color line in the opposite direction ("A white man in the Negro Leagues might as well have been a Jew"), and the title track, ostensibly about former Phillie Richie Allen but really about baseball's loss of innocence.

Other highlights are the comical "Long Story Short," in which a blowhard gets his due, and "Talk to My Lawyer," a riff on litigiousness gone insane. Brodsky accompanies his crisply expressive, somewhat pinched, John Prine-like tenor with rhythmic guitar-picking. Bass, dobro and an occasional fiddle and Hammond B-3 lick complete the simple mix.

-- Seth Rogovoy


***

ACETONE

(Vapor)

Acetone dissolve the metallic nail polish that usually encrusts LA's glam machine, preferring instead the muddy ditch of slowcore bluegrass-inflected rock. Every note on their latest CD, from Richie Lee's slack-tuned bass to Mark Lightcap's gorgeous, twangy guitar chords, is drenched with reverb and tremolo so thick you can cut it with a knife. Breathtaking vocal harmonies, ever-so-slightly out of tune, maintain a mournful tack alongside Steve Hadley's disciplined, crystal-clear drumming. The trio take their cues from the Velvet Underground's moodier side, but also from early Pink Floyd (the chorus of "All the Time" runs "And I wish you were here/I'm not waiting but I wish you were"). The result is disorienting and spacy but not overly psychedelic. More like post-psychedelic -- groove-drone love songs for late-night zone-out sessions.

-- Chris Tweney


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