But with the new My Charmed Life, perhaps the third time will be the charm. As sweet as a Blow Pop, Life is also elegiac, cinematic and coolly mysterious. But then, Melody is a mysterious man. Unnaturally obsessed with the cabaret music phenomena of Europe between the two world wars, he combines the dramatic scoring of a Nino Rota, the Broadway snazz of Sondheim, the wry theatrics of Brecht/Weill, the weirdness of Tom Waits and the poetic vision of Kerouac, bringing it all into colorful relief with his skilled backup band, the Young Turks. It's not often that one hears an accordion, Moog, harmonium, Hammond B-3 organ, strings and tuba all within a single song.

My Charmed Life's breezy title cut evokes cigars, martinis and good vibes. Melody's phrasing is delicate, like that of Sinatra, his voice Torme smooth, his songwriting a smart tribute to another era. Melody has the ability to compose songs that are timeless yet new, rooted in certain traditions but still modern. Another Life standout is "Gone in October," Melody's eulogy to another Jack. Its lead-in lines, "In New England the leaves are falling / And Catholic girls sleep in sweet dreamless sheets / Broken windows blink out of the red bricks and silence" might have come straight out of Kerouac's Blues and Haikus. Also impressive: the lovelorn ballad "Maggie, with Green Eyes," which has all the earmarks of a classic Irish drinking song, and "Samba Ordinaire," a brassy, working-man's shirt-and-tie number complete with stock quotes and a business report blaring in the background.

Throughout My Charmed Life, Melody manages a wacky diversity without kitsch or cynicism, proving that he may yet live up to his "Kurt Weill for the Tarantino age" billing. Talk about pressure. But if anyone can handle it, it's Little Jack. (***)

-- Liz Belile

Royal Fingerbowl
Happy Birthday, Sabbo!

Picture snuggling up with your significant other in the shadows of some dark, musty dance-hall dive in New Orleans. It's the kind of place with washers and dryers in the back, where the music sounds all too real and the floor is always sticky. A couple of mint juleps and a Hurricane later, don't be surprised if you find yourself mixing it up to the sounds of Royal Fingerbowl, whether you like it or not. Chances are, though, you'll like it.

Given the Fingerbowl's extensive collection of college degrees and the band's impressive resume of endless gigging around the French Quarter's famed Faubourg Marigny scene, the untamed honesty and simplicity of Happy Birthday, Sabbo! is striking. Its wily, stripped-down mix is driven by standup bass, snare drum, cymbal and singer Alex McMurray, who's the crazed combination of an American Shane McGowan and the campy David Lee Roth of yesteryear.

Sabbo!'s jumping, jiving tunes are imminently danceable and plumed with all the raucous festivity of a brass-flanked Mardi Gras procession. But while tracks such as "A Month of Sundays" are, more or less, romping variations on the "You're So Ugly" vein of party standards, the Fingerbowl boys don't limit themselves to simple, goofy celebrations of their hometown. On the more serious side, there's a sorry tale about a disgruntled postal worker about to face a S.W.A.T. team, a deadbeat loser who dreams of buying a round for himself and all of his friends. You'll even find a few woeful country numbers, the likes of which you'll never hear on kicker radio. As McMurray says at one point, "I'm sorry, it's not love. But it's like big whiskey."

Whatever. It sure sounds like fun. (*** 1/2)
-- Stephen Gershon

Work and Nonwork
Drag City

Broadcast is apt to creep people out in the way some of us are afraid of clowns, its happy exterior seemingly disguising something quite sinister. These clever Brits deftly combine the upbeat, chugging rhythms of nouveaux-Kraut-rockers Stereolab and the perky, mildly psychedelic melodies of '60s pop with the film-noir atmospherics of trip-hop and hip-hop combos such as Portishead and Wu Tang Clan.

Work and Nonwork sounds old, but it's not retro; it retains a postmodern self-consciousness without being smug. The disc's general feeling of malaise is somehow heightened by the outright sugariness of various over-the-top touches. The very elements designed to soothe -- toy-piano keyboards, breathy, affectless vocals, simple melodies -- only make the mood more eerie.

Not that Work and Nonwork's peaceful, uneasy feeling isn't enjoyable, achieving its pleasing unpleasantries with weird shifts in sound and rhythm. On "Living Room," an oddly timed snare beat comes along to abruptly beef up a dreamy, passive tempo. Two tracks later on "The World Backwards," a swinging, waltzlike groove quickly drops out to be replaced by hazy, '50s-era science-fiction keyboards, promptly turning rather mellow background music into intense art rock. Broadcast's formula, while not necessarily amazing, is at once scary and catchy. And like candy-coated sandpaper, there is pain lurking just beneath its sunny surface. (***)

-- David Simutis

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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