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Buick MacKane
The Pawn Shop Years
Ryko

Anyone who's seen Alejandro Escovedo play live knows what the (tiny) audience for his recent records may have missed, which is that alongside the eclectic and literate sensitivity that has been Escovedo's bread and butter for his last three solo CDs there's a rock and roll animal clawing for release. Live, Escovedo hardly lets a show go by without freeing the beast to rip through the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and when he's done, you know there's more to him than his Austin-singer/ songwriter tag suggests.

Buick MacKane -- Escovedo's garage-rock side project with bandmates Joe Eddy Hines, David Fairchild and Glenn Benavides -- shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, Escovedo forged some of Austin's finest hard guitar rock in the 1980s with the True Believers, and before that he was stinking up the stage as a member of the San Francisco proto-punk band the Nuns. Still, following a trio of confessional CDs, The Pawn Shop Years is an unexpected blast of balls-out guitar overdrive. Whether anyone will notice it is up for debate (the record is Escovedo's swan song for Ryko, which dropped him late last year), but notice or no, The Pawn Shop Years reaffirms a long-suppressed facet of Escovedo's talent.

The Stooges get a visitation here with "Loose," and the remainder of the disc's ten tracks bear that influence in a storm of jungle beats and feedback squall. Punk attitude to spare is born out in throwaway titles such as "John Conquest, You've Got Enough Dandruff on Your Collar to Bread a Veal Cutlet," a song that sounds like a Beatles tune reworked by HYsker DY.

Escovedo's career so far has been marked by promise fulfilled but never properly appreciated. The True Believers were the next-big-thing for years before falling apart, and the solo Escovedo has collected critical raves that far outnumber his royalty checks. Under the circumstances, Buick MacKane probably won't do much better, which just makes it all the more inspiring that Escovedo keeps on, doing more and more, and doing it better and better. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Freedy Johnston
Never Home
Elektra

More than anything, I'd like to be the one to say that Never Home is the flat-out masterpiece that'll earn Freedy Johnston the big commercial payoff to match his wealth of accolades. But alas, Johnston's second major-label outing can't even brush up against greatness without something dull getting in the way: a leaden string of mid-tempo ballads, a chorus or two that doesn't register where it should, one tale too many that leads to an uncharacteristically foregone conclusion.

Never Home was produced with a mildly assertive touch by Danny Kortchmar, a '70s session veteran perhaps best-known for his partnership with Don Henley, which says a lot about the commercial expectations for Never Home. Johnston's 1994 Elektra debut, The Perfect World, was awfully puffy and restrained given its producer, grunge guru Butch Vig, and it yielded only one minor hit, the demure "Bad Reputation." Never Home is also front-loaded with a potential hit, "On the Way Out," which grooves with an untethered intensity that recalls 1992's Can You Fly, a CD that, four releases down the line, still stands as Johnston's finest.

At his most lucid, Johnston is a miner of the common, everyday nuggets of humanity no one else would bother to notice. He chooses his words sparingly and with precision, his signature man-child croon adding a subversive emotional dynamic to his often detached and fatalistic musings. But Johnston's mastery of life's tragic particulars is infrequent on Never Home. While troubled characters abound -- a wayward pilot's son who loathes flying ("Western Sky"), an insidious arsonist hubby ("Gone to See the Fire"), an obsessively nostalgic dreamer ("Seventies Girl") -- their insides ring hollow, their plights curiously drained of intimacy. Listen carefully on Never Home, and you'd swear you're hearing a gifted singer/songwriter doing just enough to get by -- punching in, punching out, and leaving his heart and soul at the office. Johnston is capable of much more, and much more is what's expected of him. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Pat Metheny Group
Quartet
Geffen

Pat Metheny is probably the world's most successful jazz guitarist not to feature vocals, a fact that, I suppose, gives him license with his record company to pretty much do whatever he wants. Unfortunately, the listener suffers the consequences. On Quartet, Metheny tries to succeed on too many fronts -- ballads, straight-ahead contemporary jazz and pure group improvisation. Taken as a whole, it fails miserably. Not that Quartet doesn't start out promisingly enough with "When We Were Free," a medium-tempo jazz waltz and the CD's best tune. If Metheny could have kept up this groove, everything would have been great. But the mood is broken as quickly as the intro to the next track, "Montevideo," which features a lot of random noisemaking before degenerating into a pseudo-samba that goes nowhere fast. "Take Me Home" is next, a fast swinging groove that features Metheny's hottest licks of the CD. Unfortunately, if you've ever heard Metheny, you've heard these same licks before. One of the final tracks, "Language of Time," is classic Metheny, with guitar synth and everything, but it's surrounded by a dectet of boring ballads. Ultimately, Quartet is for hard-core Metheny fans only. (**)

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