Grant Lee Buffalo
Jubilee
Slash/Warner Bros.

History's embellished theatrics inform Grant Lee Phillips's imaginary movie set. Whether singing about delinquent hippie trash and illicit sex on his band's moody 1993 debut, Fuzzy, or picking apart decaying cultural and industrial institutions throughout 1995's dour Copperopolis, the man behind the Buffalo seems to feel a powerful pull from the past. And though he's never been one for loftier-than-thou declarations, his nostalgic ambition and penchant for melodrama can pose a threat to the casual listener. The on-album equivalent of a brooding, well-read loner forever on the fringe of social acceptance -- and, for that matter, of reality in general -- Phillips is hardly the easiest guy to cozy up to; his intensity is as much a curse as it is a conduit.

But with Jubilee, Mr. Self-Absorbed may finally be ready to let the rest of us in, his newfound openness prompted, perhaps, by the departure of his longtime bassist, producer and creative sounding board, Paul Kimble. With Kimble gone, you could argue that Phillips has lost his primary shit-sifter. And indeed, Jubilee is spattered with B-side-quality filler. Yet something about the split seems to have leavened Phillips's creative temperament. Tunes like "APB," "Truly, Truly," "My, My, My," and "Fine How'd Ya Do" (its psychedelic carnival atmospherics making it the perfect companion piece to the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite") are among the most ebullient GLB has ever recorded. "Truly, truly, truly, I want you to do / Truly, truly, truly I do," Phillips coos on "Truly, Truly," the album's first single, reveling in repetition like a teen loopy from his first bout of puppy love. Indeed, compared to the opaque, beaten-down bummer that was Copperopolis, Jubilee is a regular garden party -- and for Phillips, a triumph of heart over head.

Now for the bad news. Grant Lee Buffalo's talent for offsetting turbulent minor-chord verses with soaring pop choruses has settled into formula on Jubilee; at times, it feels like the group is coasting uphill. But to his credit, Phillips -- a notorious control freak -- hired outside help for the first time in the form of producer Paul Fox (Semisonic, 10,000 Maniacs). On Jubilee, Fox took the more-is-better approach, sprucing up Phillips's multilayered acoustic and electric guitars with harmonica, banjo and accordion, as well as Moog, Hammond organ and saloon-style piano; he and Phillips even recruited Robyn Hitchcock and Michael Stipe to add a little low-key vocal seasoning. And yet Jubilee is never busy to the point of being convoluted. So while it may be the most produced Grant Lee Buffalo album to date, it's also the band's most cohesive, stunningly pretty on the surface and understatedly droll on the inside.

Prior to Jubilee, overstatement was, for the most part, the only way Grant Lee Buffalo knew how to get by. When Phillips went out of character and traded his billowy, affected vocal style for a delicate, altimeter-busting falsetto on "Mockingbirds" -- one of many masterful moments on 1994's Mighty Joe Moon -- radio reluctantly embraced the band. But "Mockingbirds" was one of a couple of exceptions on an album that adhered to a slash-and-burn folk-rock design, owing as much to the showiness of glam-era David Bowie and Marc Bolan as it did to the grounded subtleties of Gram Parsons and the Byrds. Ballsy and beautiful, Mighty Joe Moon was a concept album with no clear concept other than its own momentous sense of sweep, its imagery-packed narratives bound to no logical sense of time, logic or space.

But struggling to maintain a near-genius clip can be a draining proposition. And with Jubilee, Phillips proves that he can take a breather -- loosening his solemn expression into an easy, shit-eating grin and, if need be, even sucking a bit of wind. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Tricky
Angels with Dirty Faces
Island

Tricky's voice sounds like it's filtered through the cracked speaker of a broken transistor radio. He provides his own static, every other word a distorted rumble from the bottom of his throat. That human attribute defines him as much as the languid groove or the knotted coil of rhythms that snake beneath the melodies. It disturbs and thrills all at once, a hot breeze rustling music that drips with sweat.

And yet, the former Adrian Thawes is not the lone star of his show: Tricky's the name of the band, such as it is, encompassing not only Thawes's guttural roar but also Martina Topley Bird's waifish soul-sister whisper. She's the angelic heartbeat to his demonic growl, and when they tangle, it's a rumble on the dance-floor jungle. Theirs is music made by former lovers for former lovers, the sound of relationships in mid-ruin.

Angels is the inevitable follow-up to Pre-Millennium Tension, its vibe restive where Pre-Millennium predecessor Maxinquaye's was festive. It's a release for the cultists who prefer moan-and-drone eccentricity over groove-thang accessibility. It takes its cue from the second cut, "Mellow," a tune so laid-back it all but crawls. "Singing the Blues" is Tricky's most deceptively warm outing to date, Lonnie Johnson recast as a down-in-the-mouth single girl with a shit job and an empty wallet. The song builds from a lone moaning riff into a finely sculpted shuffle. A dozen rhythms move in and out of the track until it sounds like six songs crammed into the framework of one; it's dope-smoke hypnotic, getting so far under your skin it flows like blood.

Soon enough, P.J. Harvey appears to engage Tricky in a deadpan duel on "Broken Homes," one of those price-of-fame songs written by musicians who became too famous too fast: "Success is killing," Harvey sings in a voice so flat and somnolent it's all but unrecognizable. "Murder is media / Forced laugh, forced autograph / First my body, now my corpse / Those men will break your bones." When "Broken Homes" fades out, "6 Minutes" bursts in, and suddenly the melancholy release turns jittery as Tricky croaks weary superstar catch phrases ("industry full of vomit," "the champagne's at the bar") over sneaky beats and snatches of guitar, piano and Martina's behind-the-curtain phantom vocals.

Meanwhile, "The Moment I Feared" (written by the Bomb Squad, PE's siren of sound) is breathless from the word go, proof Tricky can rap faster than a speeding bullet. But for all its swings, it barely lands a punch; Tricky's far better at long-distance pace than sprinting speed. (*** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Billy Bragg and Wilco
Mermaid Avenue
Elektra

An unusual "collaboration" between a dead American songwriting legend, a British folk/punk socialist and a ragtag group of Americana rockers, Mermaid Avenue combines lyrics written by Woody Guthrie with music written by fellow travelers Billy Bragg and Wilco. Throughout his career, Bragg has shown a penchant for being heavy-handed and stiff, so it would seem that the loose and romping alterna-country of Wilco would be a good match. It is.

At the request of the Guthrie family, Bragg sifted through the various songs and song fragments composed by the folksinger during his long illness. What he and Wilco have come up with is fairly simple, not so much in deference to Guthrie's less-is-better philosophy but because neither has been about complexity in the first place. On Mermaid Avenue, acoustic and pedal steel guitar, fiddle, organ, piano and accordion define the music's rustic parameters, while Bragg's hearty British accent and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's lax, Chicago-meets-Memphis delivery fill in the rich details. Buoyed by Guthrie's raw materials, the group confidently maintains a jammy, hootenanny feel. And since Guthrie's populist folk is already part of the very fabric of American popular music, Mermaid isn't so much about dwelling on the past as it is about continuing down the path he cleared. Even serio-snoozer Natalie Merchant, who provides backing and the lead vocals on "Birds and Ships," can't kill the album's momentum.

Also refreshing is the way Mermaid Avenue doesn't get bogged down by weighty issues, presenting an array of moods. There are lust songs ("Ingrid Bergman"), vivid reminiscences ("Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"), tales of personal longing ("California Stars"), even out-and-out goofs ("Hoodoo Voodoo"). Fueled by the power of hope and the crushing inevitability of failure, Guthrie's lyrics have always encompassed the idea that the American Dream is about everyone. Some 30 years after his death, that all-inclusive yearning still resonates. (****)

-- David Simutis

Various Artists
Bulworth: The Soundtrack
Interscope

Some soundtracks are so fine they deserve the success they receive -- Boomerang, Pulp Fiction and Above the Rim are prime examples. But those tend to be exceptions. Most are utterly expendable, and hip-hop/R&B soundtracks are often among the lamest.

As of this writing, no fewer than five movie-affiliated releases have taken up residence on the Billboard R&B charts, and one, in particular, is feeling the industry buzz: the rap companion piece to Warren Beatty's wiggy political satire, Bulworth. Soundtrack giantess Karyn Rachtman (Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights) has assembled an impressive talent roster that includes Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and various Wu-Tang Clansmen. And with Wyclef Jean, Organized Noize, DJ Muggs and Terry Riley serving in various production capacities, Bulworth may well be the most touted hip-hop soundtrack of the year.

It also flaunts something practically none of the other soundtracks of its ilk have: artistic distinction. Much like the message-laden film in which some of its tracks appear, Bulworth: The Soundtrack boasts a commendable diversity of artists and subject matter. Current Cool J adversary Canibus teams up with World Music kingpin Youssou N'Dour on "How Come," a moody, introspective number for conspiracy theorists, while Method Man, KRS-One, and KAM and Mobb Deep's Prodigy team up to rip politics and the media on the title track. You can tell where Public Enemy is headed with "Kill 'Em Live" with one listen to Chuck D's bombastic lyrics ("Fuck the government / 'Cuz you know that I would").

Still, more fun-minded listeners need not be scared off. Dr. Dre and LL Cool J duet on "Zoom," one of those standard-issue, set-it-off type deals. There's also the praiseworthy efforts of newer talent -- in particular, Eve's edgy, riff-filled "Eve of Destruction," and Black Eyed Peas' potential house-party favorite "Joints and Jams." In its efforts to cover everything, Bulworth really is something. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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