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Neither artist ever felt particularly constrained by the need for lyrics in his vocal music: Eno often sang nonsense syllables or turned to the word-generating techniques of Dadaist poets Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, while Newman took cues from Wire's main lyricist Graham Lewis and the Beats, free-associating or choosing words as much for the way they sound as for what they mean. Nor can you say that any instrument, including the human voice, is inherently retro; the only limitations are in the imagination of the user. The bigger challenge for Eno and Newman would have been to incorporate the instruments that made them famous in their attempt to craft nonlinear, open-ended dance music. Instead, they shut their mouths and took the easy way out. The Drop (**); Bastard (** 1/2)

-- Jim DeRogatis

James McMurtry
It Had to Happen
Sugar Hill

In 1995, two songs came out that were sharp expressions of the burden that the freewheeling '60s left its children: the Charlie Sexton Sextet's "Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes" and James McMurtry's "Fuller Brush Man." And on It Had to Happen, a superb slice of American roots/bar-band storytelling, McMurtry continues to wrestle with the voice he found on "Fuller Brush Man" -- that of the first post-Woodstock (and post-Altamont) generation who grew up knowing just a little too much to believe in the lies of old poetry.

McMurtry is a songwriter's songwriter, unobtrusively literate yet still posessed of common experience, insightful without being pedantic and subtle without becoming precious. Rootless, uninspired, but still enduring, McMurtry's characters cycle between ennui and effort, nostalgia and nihilism. Who else could inhabit a song such as "Peter Pan," with a chorus of "I can't grow up / 'Cause I'm too old"? Throughout It Had to Happen, McMurtry explores his favorite themes -- people on the fringes ("Paris"), hauntings from the past ("12 O'Clock Whistle") and how they've affected the present and future ("60 Acres"). The existentialism of distance -- another favorite McMurtry theme -- comes around again on Happen's "For All I Know," when McMurtry meets an old object of desire. "Last time I saw you / It could've been Christmas Eve / It could've been someone's birthday / It could've been make believe," he sings to a friend who now exists completely out of context.

His matter-of-fact singing perfectly matches his wryly cynical lyrics, but McMurtry is more than a wrung-out hipster pissing on everybody else's parade. He presents his observations like Mark Twain, without sanctimony or judgment and with a thread of humor -- thin, perhaps, but never absent. It's a dry wit that lends itself to brilliantly succinct descriptions, such as when in "Peter Pan" he sets the stage for the eternal man/boy with "Beer cans to the ceiling / Ashtray on the floor / Laundry on the sofa / Need I say more?" Even though Pan seems mired in an eternal Never Never Land, he still dreams: "Let's go chase tornadoes / Just me and you / Don't often catch 'em / But man, when you do." He's like a kid who can't remember anything about his dad except the old man telling him to get back up on that horse. Despite a sometimes bleak and jaded eye, McMurtry finds such dreaming as inevitable as the title of his CD implies. (*** 1/2)

-- Matt Weitz

James McMurtry performs at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge Thursday, August 21.

k.d. lang
drag
Warner Bros.

Yeah, yeah, the singer, not the song, and all that -- I couldn't agree more. And there's no question that Lang has a set of pipes for the ages. Stand her on a street corner during a tornado warning and her lungs alone could save every trailer-court resident within ten miles. But since the folks at the Grammys validated her overtly "mature" work with a couple of statuettes a few years back, she simply hasn't been all that much fun to be around.

Not even this disc's playful concept -- a collection of tunes casually linked by a cigarette/smoking motif -- can shake the seriousness out of her. I'm all for radical revisions of familiar tunes, but I can't pretend that I've been waiting breathlessly for a sophisticated reading of Steve Miller's "The Joker," and I'm betting that not many others have been, either. And while the idea of Lang warbling "Theme from the Valley of the Dolls" is a delicious one, the execution reminded me of Maureen McGovern, a performer I was hoping would not cross my mind again until I was in the grave.

All in all, drag is a pleasant listen. There's nothing on it that will cause you to use your index fingers for earplugs, and Lang's cover of the David Wilcox ditty "My Old Addiction" is quite lovely. But the CD as a whole left me pining for the days when k.d. was still channeling Patsy Cline. (**)

-- Michael Roberts

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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