Devotion & Doubt's finest moments, then, are the most traditional sounding ones: the tempting, dread-filled shuffle of the opening "Pull," the bleary-eyed "4AM," the full band romp of the sorrow-charged "A Goodbye Rye." These cuts and a few others -- where voice, lyric and arrangement join to convey a mood of devotion and doubt -- are simply devastating. The rest, however, seem designed to frustrate the best efforts of most listeners, and as good as Buckner can be, that's a damn shame. (** 1/2)

-- David Cantwell

Mark Eitzel
Warner Bros.

It could've been an Academy Award winner: Two desperate human beings, fast running out of steam from doing the same thing for way too long, find each other and, out of mutual need, form a bond. One has resigned himself to be a chronic drunk (or at least an endless chronicler of drunks), as he sways lazily between almost-was and never-will-be. He's planning to drink himself (or write songs about drinking himself) to death. The other is a star who seems to have found it all -- money, success, influence -- but in the bargain he's traded his freedom. He's fleeing the safe life, where working with the same people has become burdensome. He's drawn to the drunk's sense of purpose, while the drunk sees in the star a savior. The drunk needs some of the light the star can shine upon him. The star, meanwhile, simply needs someone else to need him.

So they hole up in a house in San Francisco for three days and nights, where the doomed relationship is consummated in a nonstop songwriting session. Things go great: tunes pour out like never before, and it starts to look like maybe, just maybe, they've found in each other musical soul mates. But at the end of the three days, they look back at what they created together and the cruel truth hits them: While they set out to escape their own demons in the arms of another, each ended up infecting the other with the very things they'd hoped to escape. The staleness of the star's guitar strum and chord progressions makes the drunk's maudlin brooding sound more flimsy and formulaic than ever. And the drunk's dull and heavy vocals make the star's simple charms sound stiff and cumbersome.

But at the last minute, just before the two -- seeing no hope -- are set to fulfill their suicide pact, a group of friends from Seattle step in for emergency intervention. They show the pair how to put the best face on an unfortunate situation. A little skronky sax here, a little delicate marimba there, and the two find reason to hope. As the credits roll, the entire group of friends -- drunk and star included -- assemble for a mass hug, and a big collective pat on the back.

(Any similarities to actual people named Mark Eitzel and Peter Buck are strictly coincidental.) (** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

Michael Penn
57 Records/Epic Records

Five years after Free-for-All lived up to its name, winding up in the cutout bins before anyone even took it out of the shrink-wrap, Michael Penn returns with Resigned, and only the extremists wait with bated breath. He had his shot eight long years ago (with the top 20 single "No Myth") but aimed too high. Like girlfriend Aimee Mann, Penn has been shuttled from label to label and too often lost in the shuffle; he recorded two fine records for RCA (March and Free-for-All), made one more the label didn't want, then found himself living in oblivion. He got the save on Mann's I'm with Stupid (one of the finest records of 1996), guested with her again on a Christmas one-off, recorded music no one heard for a movie no one saw (Hard Eight) and had his Epic debut bumped back on the release schedule until it seemed it might never see the light of day. But here it is, finally, worth the wait for those who bothered to stick around -- 11 short, engaging gems that are at once intimate and somehow huge, grand gestures made by a man who plays to the back of the room but stares only at the front row.

Penn possesses a poptopian vision that connects the Beatles to Badfinger to Matthew Sweet to the Grays, one that plays considerably deeper than it appears at first or 50th glance. Like Mann, Penn creates complex music out of simple melodies, catchy choruses, easy and perhaps even obvious progressions; the notes blend into one another as if they're the only combinations possible until, at the end of 40 minutes, you feel you've heard one impossibly long, unbearably perfect song. Penn writes songs the way long-distance runners breathe, pacing himself for the long haul until it all builds to that final gasp.

The lyrics seem almost beside the point, like filler meant to provide these songs with a reason for being (example: "I am so selfish / I'm absorbed, I am absolved / It's just that you don't get involved"). Penn -- working with longtime partner Patrick Warren on keyboards, ex-Grays drummer Dan McCarroll and producer/57 Records boss man Brendan O'Brien on bass -- creates a sound bigger than his black-jeans poetry; the music, filled with guitar waves and Chamberlin echoes and snare-drum kicks, absorbs the lyrics until all that exists are these dramatic hooks ("Try," "Selfish," "Like Egypt Was") and beautiful moments ("Figment of My Imagination," "Small Black Box") that are almost orchestral in concept and dreamlike in execution. Five years may seem like a long time to wait for 40 minutes -- pardon, work ethic? -- but rarely does so much sound like so little, and come off the better for it. (*** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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