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Echo and the Bunnymen
Evergreen
London

Even by the drastically reduced standards of your typical reunion release, Echo and the Bunnymen's Evergreen is a patent disappointment -- if only for the fact that it didn't have to happen. Indeed, some might have thought this sort of retread option was beneath the group's integrity-minded leader, Ian McCulloch. But give a fading icon of '80s Brit-pop revisionism enough time to sit and stew, and sooner or later he's bound to find the urge to scare up something for the rest of us.

By most counts, Echo and the Bunnymen disbanded in 1988, when McCulloch left the fold to record on his own, though the rest of the group (minus drummer Pete De Freitas, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1989) did press on halfheartedly before disbanding in 1990. McCulloch, meanwhile, hasn't had a solo release since 1992, when -- right after foisting the horrid Mysterio upon loyal fans -- he publicly acknowledged that his creative tanks were in need of refueling. Gauging by the heft of the 12-song Evergreen, McCulloch's been woodshedding of late. Problem is, he's done little more than dredge up his own tired history, and the others in the band are more than happy to coax him along.

In a sense, Evergreen is a continuation of the posh-psychedelic, string-drenched experiments of 1984's Ocean Rain (still the Bunnymen's finest recording) -- except that now the regal melodies and plush orchestral textures of tunes such as "In My Time," "Nothing Lasts Forever" and "Just a Touch Away" seem to be turning in on themselves rather than expanding. The songs that aspire to rock out do so with the stiffness of a guitarist attempting windmill power chords in a starched tuxedo. What little forward progress there is on Evergreen is compromised by a numbing ennui emanating from McCulloch's vocals; it's almost as if he's crooning to an audience of none. And his impotent stabs at less-is-more poetic worth ("I wanna be like you / I wanna fly, fly, fly / Want you to take me to all of your sky") only compound the boredom.

If I'm being hard on the lads, forgive me. Maybe it's just my bitterness over realizing that the Bunnymen haven't resurfaced with the hardened resolve that could make us believe they're ready to show the Oasises of the world a thing or two. Then again, who am I kidding? Like everyone else, they've got bills to pay. (* 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

John Cale
Eat/Kiss: Music for the Films of Andy Warhol
Hannibal/Rykodisc

Putting aside his legendary stint in the Velvet Underground and his prolific output in the punk era (recently revisited on The Island Years collection), John Cale is in the midst of the most consistently rewarding and inventive period of his career. Whether you want to credit a supportive home on Hannibal/Rykodisc, a spurt of age-defying energy as Cale approaches his 57th birthday or that long-running desire to one-up his old partner Lou Reed, there's simply no denying that Cale has been on a winning streak since 1992's Fragments of a Rainy Season, which kicked things off with inspired solo re-interpretations of 20 of his best songs to date.

In 1994, Cale released Last Day on Earth, a strange but fascinating collaboration with Bob Neuwirth, and he followed that up with last year's Walking on Locusts, an uncharacteristically cheerful pop effort. Now the Welsh maestro is back with what is essentially two original soundtracks, commissioned by the Warhol Museum for revivals of the underground classics Eat and Kiss, and first performed in Pittsburgh in 1994 with former Velvets Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison.

The music is, without a doubt, more interesting than Warhol's films, which depicted, at great length and with no particular flair, Factory hipsters indulging in the activities indicated in their titles. (If nothing else, Warhol certainly believed in truth in advertising.) Recorded live in Lille, France, with the Soldier String Quartet, guitarist B.J. Cole, Tucker and vocalists Tiy3/4 Giraurd and Jimmy Justice, Cale's film scores pay tribute not only to Warhol and Morrison (who died last year), but to the Velvet's original chanteuse, Christa Paeffgen, better known as Nico.

Cale includes Nico's haunting song "Frozen Warnings" from The Marble Index as the second movement in the music to Kiss. Elsewhere, Cole's pedal steel echoes Morrison's noisier guitar workouts, and Tucker pounds away on the toms in her trademark style. Invoking "The Gift," Cale delivers a somber reading of Swedenborg's "Melancthon" in the middle of the music to Eat.

In fact, just about the only Velvet-y touch that isn't expanded on is Cale's chaotic viola playing; sad to say, he stayed behind the keyboards throughout this performance. But given how prolific he's been of late, he's probably preparing another album where he rectifies that right now. (****)

-- Jim DeRogatis

Bottle Rockets
24 Hours a Day
Atlantic

One should remember that, in earlier times, the members of the Bottle Rockets comprised a crappy rock band, then a crappy country band. But somehow, as is clearly shown on 24 Hours a Day, their second major-label release, they managed to synthesize the two and become a damned competent and highly entertaining band, period.

And if the material on the new CD doesn't turn over any soil they didn't churn up on 1995's The Brooklyn Side, head muse Brian Henneman has in no way exhausted his painful, funny examination of white trash chic in the American Midwest. All sorts of musical familiarities are instantly identifiable in the Bottle Rockets' work -- John Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Anderson, Neil Young, Uncle Tupelo (for whom Henneman used to roadie), Old 97's, Buck Owens, Georgia Satellites -- but a peculiar sense of humor and a twisted but poetic lyrical ability gives the Bottle Rockets an autonomous quality.

That whimsy is most obvious on the up-tempo songs and, in keeping with the theory of energy applicable to most modern releases, the Bottle Rockets kick off 24 Hours with two such amusing barroom tunes, "Kit Kat Clock" and "When I Was Dumb." The finest of the rockers, though, are "Indianapolis" (in which Henneman sings, "I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time"), the ironically yearning "Perfect Far Away" (about trying to get close to the stage at a Dolly Parton concert) and what should be an instant hit single, "Waitin' on a Train."

But for all the endearing and plaintive goofiness of the faster songs, Henneman's forte seems to be the ballads. "Smokin' 100's Alone," a fine entry in the cigarettes-as-companion-substitutes tradition of country music, is a lovely meditation on the inevitability of a relationship, while "Things You Didn't Know" is a fine stab at Crazy Horse melodicism. But "One of You" is perhaps the best song Henneman has written. It's a superb ballad about the revealing pre-hangover angst that happens when drinking has reached the point of weary predictability.

As any Fourth of July maniac can tell you, every package of bottle rockets contains a few duds -- and 24 Hours a Day is no exception. But when Henneman is at his peak, his musical pyrotechnics make for an amazing show indeed. (***)

-- Rick Koster

George Strait
Carrying Your Love with Me
MCA

Country radio is such a wasteland nowadays that the infrequent bright spots blaze forth like veritable signs from on high, like something you need to believe in just to make it through another half hour of Hot New Country. More often than not, you can count on Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam to deliver, and you can count on Mark Chesnutt and Alan Jackson to at least keep paying attention. Most everything else is just Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody.

In this dim landscape, the career of George Strait has burned like a supernova, delivering 15 years' worth of masterful singing, great songs and twangy musicianship, 15 years' worth of reasons to still believe in big-time, commercial country music. So it's with tremendous disappointment -- maybe despair would be a better word? -- that I say that Strait's latest, Carrying Your Love with Me, is hands down his worst CD ever. This is not to suggest that it's a bad record, necessarily, but it is so lifeless and so indistinguishable from everything else on the radio today that it might as well be. The musicianship behind Strait remains stellar, especially on up-tempo fare such as "Round About Way" and "I've Got a Funny Feeling," and Strait should get some kind of award for continuing to build songs around the gorgeous whine of Paul Franklin's steel guitar. ("Save the steels," as the T-shirts say.) But the songs all this crack playing is meant to support fall prey to every cliched contemporary country pose in the book, distancing the listener from any of the complicated emotional responses that once were country music's -- and George Strait's -- hallmark.

Starting with a man working up the guts to ask out a woman, then building to God finding the courage to create the universe, "The Nerve" wants to be filled with gratitude, but it's too smug and self-satisfied to even come close. "She'll Leave You with a Smile" is so condescending to women, and so trivializing of the pain that broken relationships bring, as to be almost insulting. Worse, on the handful of songs that actually aren't too bad -- and which, not coincidentally, were all written before things in Nashville changed so drastically -- Strait seems, 18 studio albums in, to merely be going through the motions. "Today my world slipped away," he sings at one point, covering Vern Gosdin's old hit, but he sounds like he could be singing about any old thing, like what he's singing about is beside the point. He sounds like Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody. (**)

-- David Cantwell

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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