Dollars for Discs

Introducing a shopping guide for sounds

If you like Johnston's songs, but find the man's lack of performance skills off-putting, you can bypass the original and check out Kathy McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnson (Bar/None), which, oddly enough, should have a greater shelf life than Johnston's own album. McCarty sang for Austin's Glass Eye back in the old days, and became a fan of Johnston's songs through the home-dubbed tapes he handed out to anyone who would listen. She's collected 19 of her faves here, and what she brings to them is a musical sense to match Johnston's vulnerability, making the tunes sound less freakish and more like the result of a full sensibility brought fully to bear. The difference between the two albums (though hell, there's no crossover of tunes -- buy 'em both...) is the difference between Johnston's sketch and McCarty's portrait. (****)

McCarty's ode to Johnston is the happy exception among tributes, though. Less successful is Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson (Capitol), on which Dinosaur Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Graham Parker, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, David Byrne and Bob Mould, among others, interpret the critically revered songwriter's tunes. It's an interesting mix of people, and the quality of Thompson's songs more or less holds the package together. X, Los Lobos and June Tabor, especially, turn in worthy performances, but there's nothing here that surpasses the still available originals. I suppose the idea is that by attaching popular names to an underappreciated body of work, you can help out the original artist. That's nice, and maybe it'll work, but if it's the name Richard Thompson in the disc's title that attracts you, you don't need this. (***)

Get away from songwriters for a moment, though -- hell, get away from songs entirely -- and check out The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom), wherein one-time Coltrane collaborator and sax explorer Pharoah Sanders teams up with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, a master of Moroccan Gnawa music who plays the bass-like Guimbri instrument and leads a chorus of vocal chants. The project, conceived by musical journeyman Bill Laswell, delves into the Gnawa trance music ceremonies, using Sanders' free-form soloing over a rhythmic bed of handclaps, drums and the resonant Guimbri to effect a fluid pulse that's probably closer to blues than anything else in American music, but not all that close just the same. It's lulling without being spacy, and Sanders' tenor sounds as at home in this setting as it does in front

of a jazz trio. Experimental, successful, eye-opening. (****)
The Sporting Life (Mute), an unlikely collaboration between vocal torture queen Diamanda Galas and ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones starts off similarly trancy, but it doesn't take long to turn seedy, which is, I gather, the point. Here, Galas turns away from the spiritual concerns that gave such weight to her Plague Mass, but applies the full force of hysteria to street life and man-baiting. "I'm so disappointed in you," she hisses, "and I don't handle disappointment well." Trust me, it doesn't sound like a come-on. For Jones' part, he gets to play with noir rock rhythms that anchor, as well as anything could, Galas' screaming flights. It's creepy, over-the-edge stuff, but it doesn't much go anywhere. (***1/2)

It shouldn't, however, go into the cut-out bins, which is where the Smashing Pumpkins' rarities, B-sides and live cuts collection Pisces Iscariot (Virgin) ought to land. This is pure filler crap from start to finish, and even the budget-price marketing can't justify the shabby effort. Even if you dig the band, the indulgence involved here is likely to be too much for you. If you thought the Pumpkins were annoyingly indulgent in the first place, this is nothing but confirmation. (*)

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