Rotation

Nanci Griffith
Blue Roses from the Moons
Elektra

In many ways, this is the finest album that Nanci Griffith has ever released. Recorded live in the studio, Blue Roses from the Moons captures the soft-voiced singer's long-time band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, laying down some of its most beautiful and charged performances ever. Part of what works best here, in fact, is the players' collective ear for the perfect arrangement: the B-3 organ that rises patiently out of the generally acoustic "Waiting for Love" or the disappointed cellos that weep behind "Is This All There Is?" On still other cuts, it's the disc's guest stars who make the difference: Darius Rucker's baritone harmony on "Gulf Coast Highway" helps to muscle up Griffith's weaker voice, and on a cover of Nick Lowe's "Battlefield" (one of five cuts where her regular group is jump-started by Buddy Holly's old band, the Crickets), Griffith and her orchestra reach a steady simmer that's as close to rocking out as she's ever come.

In one important way, though, this album is among Griffith's most disappointing. Her breathy, kewpie-doll singing has always been an acquired taste, but I had hoped that the years would grant her music the character that comes with a few rough edges. To that end, the newfound punch of her band helps a lot, and on a song such as "Not My Way Home," her voice actually cuts loose as well -- just a bit -- occasionally cracking with a passion that helps justify her occasionally too-precious lyrics. What mainly seems to be happening, though, is that she's started adopting, at unexpected moments and for no clear reason, singing "voices" other than her own. Why she throws a Dylan impersonation into each bridge of "I'll Move Along" is unclear, and the exaggerated Rainmakers twang that turns up out of nowhere on "Morning Train" distracts from the song's considerable strengths, to say the least. "Maybe Tomorrow," which Griffith co-wrote with the great Harlan Howard, is all but ruined by the silly, stylized way she sings it. Griffith's albums have always been mannered, but when the playing is as tough as the Blue Moon Orchestra provides this time around, Griffith's vocal weaknesses seem even more of a shame than usual. (***)

-- David Cantwell

Live
Secret Samadhi
Radioactive/MCA

Live personifies the term "tortured artist." Four stoic men carry on about a world that's dying while clinging to the promises of an alternative religion. Although appreciative of the critical and mass praise they've received, the members of the band shy away from the celebrity lifestyle and purport allegiance only to their music. But while Live's 1991 debut, Mental Jewelry, might have deserved all the gushing and attention, it's time to admit that the band is overrated -- it's at worst mediocre, at best slightly amusing.

The group's latest effort, Secret Samadhi, follows tradition with esoteric lyrics ("The subculture of my dreams is waiting for me to fall asleep"), crashing crescendos with no resolution, guitar-driven melodies and whiny vocals. Its 12 songs were written on tour, at home in Pennsylvania and in a house that overlooks Jamaica's Montego Bay. The changes in locale create three distinct tones to the disc. Yet all have a way of becoming so saturated with raw emotion that they cause the same nausea that's induced by schmaltzy romance films. Ed Kowalczyk's eerie tenor and the biting guitar riffs continuously build toward a climax that never comes, leaving a listener reeling and tense.

Live, however, experimented more on Secret Samadhi, showing more growth between this CD and their last than between their debut and sophomore outings. Layered production and the use of samples venture into an industrial arena, while "Lakini's Juice" juxtaposes a haunting chorus with a classical string arrangement. Ultimately, though, the most affecting moment on Secret Samadhi can't be attributed to Live at all, but to Jennifer Charles, whose sultry vocal contribution to "Ghost" should make you long for the day when Kowalczyk stops brooding and listens to someone else -- if, of course, that day ever comes. (** 1/2)

-- Carrie Bell

Blur
Blur
Virgin

America and Blur have had a difficult courtship, thanks to the band's staunch championing of its inbred, middle-class Britishness. Choosing as touchstones fellow English rockers who, at one time or another, suffered comparable identity problems on our shores -- the Kinks, the Who, the Jam -- Blur ambassador Damon Albarn has remained an impenetrable earful to all but the most Anglocentric Yanks.

By last year, Blur's seeming unwillingness to cater to any sort of a bridging of classes and cultures had generated such a backlash as to overshadow the band's obvious excellence four releases running. The third of those CDs, 1995's Parklife, was an out-and-out masterpiece, though no less alien for its brilliance, what with its rampant eclecticism and its cryptic Cockney asides.

So, how to explain the group's rather drastic realignment on Blur? Apparently, Albarn is on a mission to cleanse himself of the over-hyped Brit-pop movement. Seeing how Oasis won over U.S. audiences while Blur was reduced to the role of understudy, it's easy to understand his frustration. In his quest to reinvent himself and his band, Albarn has chosen to be led around by a cadre of international influences. On Blur, he picks through the back catalogs of David Bowie and Ian Hunter, while at the same time he dabbles in the ambient, lo-fi indulgences of the likes of Sonic Youth and Pavement.

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