Following the release of her wildly eclectic 1995 record Post, Bjork told me that "the album is sort of a challenge. It's like saying, 'Okay, life, you can throw whatever you want at me -- an earthquake, a devaluation of all currencies, or maybe I'll fall in love -- and I don't have to know what happens next. I'm just going to enjoy it to the max and go with the flow.' "

That was the wacky, unpredictable, postmodern pixie attitude that initially made us fall in love with this Icelandic princess. But the problem with Bjork's third solo effort, Homogenic, is anticipated by the title: You always know what's going to happen next. Bjork delivers one bleak, static and relatively tuneless trip-hop sound sketch after another. In sharp contrast to Post, all but the most masochistic listeners will be tempted to tune out long before the disc is finished.

Bjork's bad mood is understandable, since she fled to Spain to make this CD after a well-publicized incident in which she was stalked and threatened by a twisted fan. The lyrics resonate with calls for help: "They will assist us / 'Cause we're asking for help" ("All Neon Like"); "I don't know when / I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me!" ("Hunter"); and "State of emergency / How beautiful to be / State of emergency" ("Joga"). But instead of reflecting panic, anger, fear or any of the other emotions you might expect following such an experience, the music mainly registers ... boredom.

A drum machine spits out a spastic martial snare rhythm; a string section sobs; an accordion moans. The minimalist production (courtesy of veteran collaborators Mark Bell and Eumir Deodato) makes Tricky's similarly barren soundscapes sound like Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Bjork occasionally goes over the top in her histrionic manner -- screeching and yelping and camping it up vocally as she did on "It's Oh So Quiet" from Post -- but this time, you have to wonder what she's so excited about. It sure isn't the music. (**)

-- Jim DeRogatis

Jon Dee Graham
Escape from Monster Island

Had Jon Dee Graham's solo debut been a guitar-based release, few would have complained. After all, the Austin musician is best known for his pivotal roles as a guitarist in the Skunks and True Believers, not to mention his session work with John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Kelly Willis. But as it turns out, the obvious is not the case, which is all the more reason to study and celebrate Escape from Monster Island, a carefully crafted and wholly compelling song cycle powered by happiness, confusion, frustration and, most of all, love.

Not only do Monster Island's skeletal musical backdrop and penetrating compositions distance Graham from his sideman history, they convey a sense of urgency that many singer/songwriters barely approach. These are songs that had to be written, and the uniquely personal material fully lends itself to Graham's smoky pipes, unconventional attention-grabbers not unlike those of Tom Waits. The disc is a tribute to the intersection of history, emotion and talent, elements that are handled here with unerring honesty and grace.

Monster Island is dedicated to Graham's son, Roy, and though few things in life are as plain as a father's love for his child, few efforts in recent memory illustrate that love more effectively. On "Soonday," the effort's thematic centerpiece, Graham utters the seemingly frivolous inquiry, "Are you eating popsicles on the porch?" just moments before a chorus pleads, "Don't grow up so goddamn fast / Wait a little while till I come home." The themes of equally powerful tunes such as "$100 Bill," "Wave Goodbye," "Wait" and "Airplane" are similarly straightforward; their beauty lies in how little one has to know about the real story behind the songs in order to feel their power (Roy recently moved back to Los Angeles to live with Graham's estranged wife.) Escape from Monster Island unfurls like a poignant -- and imperative -- letter home. (****)

-- Andy Langer

Dale Watson
I Hate These Songs

A liner photo on Dale Watson's latest CD shows the artist sitting before a table cluttered with an old box phonograph, empty Lone Star longnecks and a small pile of old vinyl from the likes of Lefty Frizzell and Faron Young. That scenario says everything one needs to know about Watson -- and it also has the makings of a hell of a solo Saturday night. The only thing missing on the table, in fact, is a copy of I Hate These Songs, Watson's wonderful new disc celebrating everything that was good about country music before the Nashville suits, formatted radio and our overall political correctness ruined it.

Watson sings like he's gargled whiskey with Waylon Jennings and Ray Price, writes songs like he took Socratic instruction from Merle Haggard, George Jones and Buck Owens and, doubtless, has a lifelong bar tab that could match any of the five in their collective prime. Indeed, the creative attention Watson devotes to his hangovers is inspiring. On tunes such as "Wine Don't Lie" or "Hair of the Dog," Watson poetically laments his propensity for drink and its egregious aftereffects, singing in the latter tune, "I swore I'd never drink again, again."

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