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Richard Buckner
Since
MCA

It's just like Richard Buckner to attach a drab, monosyllabic title like Since to a work of such complicated beauty. He's the critics' pet, after all -- the kind of sinfully gifted storyteller who makes us music scribes feel we're needed, if only to figure out just where he's coming from. And if we do, by chance, hit on a discernible direction within those artfully strung-together phrases, cryptic metaphors and grammatically unrealized sentence fragments, well then, I guess we've proven we're not really pantywaists in the end.

Or have we? Because chances are, with Buckner, you only think you've solved the puzzle. And frankly, it's better that way -- to just relax, stow the flip analyses and allow his poetic clusters of emotional contradiction to rattle around your brain like multicolored marbles in a standup maze. With Since, his third and best release, the San Francisco singer/songwriter has never made it easier to rest your head and open your heart. Where Buckner's last two efforts -- 1995's Bloomed and 1997's Devotion + Doubt -- amounted to little more than pockets of substantive prose seasoned and textured with spare musical accompaniment (albeit often brilliantly rendered), Since is a legitimate collection of songs, fully fleshed out with crack backup support and high, lonesome melodies that are as timeless in a pop sense as they are often disarmingly bleak.

While by no means a great singer in the technical sense, Buckner is nonetheless a gifted vocalist, and the wounded weight that he attaches to every line is never less than honest. Even when in the company of his dream band (which includes indie-folk chanteuse Syd Straw and members of Tortoise, Son Volt, Gastr Del Sol and the Schramms) and producer/multi-instrumentalist JD Foster (who also worked on Devotion + Doubt), Buckner can seem like he's barely holding it together. As usual, his lyrics reflect that instability. "Ground down from-the-heels-up / I've been in this mood before," Buckner warbles atop the devastatingly tornadic steel-guitar leads of Son Volt's Eric Heywood, and the relentless, spiraling groove of Foster (bass) and Tortoise's John McEntire (drums).

But Buckner isn't looking to cure his poisonous mood swings, and he's skeptical of others whose solution is to run away from their demons: "So, you just pour your poor self out and milk your spirit down," he sings on "Raze." "But, what're ya gonna do in another year or two but groove a new rut in another town."

At times on Since, Buckner's grit-versus-sensitivity ratio approximates an uneasy cross between Lou Barlow and Steve Earle. Elsewhere he walks the jagged line between cynicism and hope like Jay Farrar's more urbane lost cousin. In most every instance -- whether it's alt-country grandstanding ("Jewelbomb"), prickly acoustic minimalism ("Boys, the Night Will Bury You," the Woody Guthrie-esque "Slept") or tender balladry (the duo with Straw, "Faithful Shooter") -- his vocals tug relentlessly against the sturdy structures of his most fully realized tunes to date. The tension that results is never less than enthralling, but it's also ominous -- like the eerie silence after a backroad car wreck. (**** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Willie Nelson
Teatro
Island

Every other album Willie Nelson releases is hailed as his comeback; the ones in between (those dipped in holy water or recorded with his honky-tonk homies) are released on labels so tiny no one even knows they're out. Never has one man's career been so revered and so ignored all at once. But Nelson has more music inside him than white blood cells; for him, making up this genius shit is easier than blinking. Which is why Teatro -- the sound made when you get Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball and Nelson's own Spirit into bed and turn out the lights -- is that much of a grand accomplishment ... and also such a profound disappointment. Fact is, a man this God-blessed with talent shouldn't have to try as hard as producer Daniel Lanois makes it all seem.

The notion of Nelson hooking up with Lanois -- the middle-aged, new-age version of hip -- is intriguing enough; after all, Lanois rendered Bob Dylan's dead-man's croak into an ethereal sigh and turned Harris's high notes into low moans. But Nelson needs no such help from Lanois, whose idea of invention is filling in every blank with some gimmicky effect. Set Nelson down with a guitar, which he plays like Django Reinhardt on a Hank Williams bender, and with that voice of his, as pliant and cozy as old leather, and you're guaranteed only magnificence. The 1996 release Spirit proved as much, with Willie singing his love songs to God and gal (almost) all by his lonesome. It was perfect -- no, better than that.

With Teatro, Nelson tries to repeat -- and one-up -- history. It picks up where Spirit ended, with him playing sad Spanish lullabies. Indeed, Reinhardt's "Ou es-tu, mon amour" opens the disc, proving once more Nelson's a guitar player the way Superman is just a guy. Then he and Lanois and Harris resurrect seven old songs from Nelson's back catalog, add a few new ones and a Lanois cover, then "modernize" the whole lot by layering on the doubled percussion instruments, ambient keyboards and vibraphones. Never has sparse sounded so cluttered, especially on songs such as "Everywhere I Go" and "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," where the drums beat the tenebrous mood half to death.

Yet, Teatro still works wonderfully as a concept album about love and its inevitable heartbreak. The first words Nelson utters are from 1962's "I Never Cared for You," a forgotten gem from his Nashville days: "The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all." It's a cold-hearted kiss-off delivered like a love letter. Later, he offers, "I broke her heart so many times that now at last I've broken mine," resurrecting the 36-year-old "I've Just Destroyed the World." Nelson is his own atmosphere, so it's too bad Lanois commits the producer's ultimate sin by thinking he's more important than the songs. There's an astonishing record somewhere here, buried beneath Lanois's garbage. (***)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Elliott Smith
XO
DreamWorks

Elliott Smith's melancholy "Miss Misery," from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, was nominated for an Oscar last year. And like the authors of that film, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Smith's rising status comes from an indie perspective, where the idea of credibility favors fine craftsmanship over the standard star-making formulas.

On XO, his fourth solo album and first for a major label, the Dallas-born/Portland-bred Smith continues to expand the parameters of the coffeehouse confessional. A lush, unabashedly pop outing, XO takes full advantage of Elliott's production sidekicks, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. Rothrock and Schnapf are also known for helping another neo-folkster flesh out his sound -- a wacky, Grammy-winning hip-pop phenom by the name of Beck. Whereas Beck required guidance to bring his disparate musical ideas closer to earth, Smith's own world needed expanding. And for once, on XO, his songs sound like they were meant for ears other than his own.

It seems that with each album, Smith has grown less hesitant to expose himself and his commercial urges. As such, his music has become more confident. His characters continue to wallow in an unsavory quagmire of misunderstandings and miscommunication, but XO slathers on the strings and keyboards, sweeteners that draw listeners to the songs, if not so much the songwriter himself. But then, Smith has always lent a certain distance to the idea of intimacy. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

N'dea Davenport
N'dea Davenport
V2

On the intro to "Placement for the Baby," the sounds of rain splattering against a window and a wailing infant are gently caressed away by Davenport's soothing, opulent voice. It's only one example of how the former Brand New Heavies vocalist's mostly self-produced solo debut isn't afraid to take risks, incorporating unexpected colors into its bold portrait of R&B's uncertain future.

The singer, who fronted the finest material the Heavies had to offer, clearly draws on her tenure with that groove-heavy multicultural unit to lend substance to N'dea Davenport. But she's been a session singer for a diverse range of artists -- including Madonna, Jim Lauderdale, Fishbone, Luscious Jackson and Roger Waters -- and those experiences didn't hurt either. From the fat N'awlins bounce of the Rebirth Brass Band on "Getaway" to the slippery soulful delight of "Bring It On" (one of four tracks produced by Dallas Austin), Davenport explores the spectrum of several R&B-based genres without ever committing wholly to any one of them. "Save Your Love for Me" drips with a slow, jazzy pretext that buoys a timeless torchy alto. There's one for the dance floor freaks ("No Never Again"), and she even flirts with rock and roll on a cover of Neil Young's "Old Man."

All of which amounts to a spunky call to action from a woman who's not afraid to mix and match musical elements and heritage, so long as it gets the job done. (*** 1/2) -- Melissa Blazek

W.C. Clark
Lover's Plea
Black Top

W.C. Clark's record company is calling him the "godfather of the Austin blues scene," and for once, music industry hype is closer to truth-in-advertising than simple salesmanship. Clark began playing publicly at age 16. By the time Stevie Ray Vaughan recruited him for the Triple Threat Revue, the immediate precursor to Double Trouble, he'd already done a lengthy stint with Baytown soul great Joe Tex. Since then, Clark has been one of Austin's most pervasive live performers, influencing almost everyone, past and present, on the scene with his seasoned sensibilities and easy-rolling blues approach.

While his popularity as a live act remains secure, it's only in recent years that he's finally been able reach a wider audience with a long overdue series of excellent albums. The new Lover's Plea adds to and enhances that growing catalog. Here, Clark is ably supported by a cast of Austin all-stars, including Antone's guitar ace Derek O'Brien, keyboardist Riley Osborne and the former Double Trouble rhythm section of drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon (now the backbone of Storyville). But the spotlight is squarely on Clark, who seems to relish the attention.

Despite his considerable blues pedigree, Clark is, at heart, a soul man, more comfortable with Al Green than Albert King when push comes to shove. Just to make sure everyone is aware of the fact, he delivers a fine and funky take on Green's "I'm Hooked on You" with Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff spicing up things on tenor sax. But it's his original material and the story behind it that makes the album special. Last year, an accident on the road killed Clark's fiancee and his drummer while leaving him in serious medical straits. Now fully recovered, Clark has dealt with the aftermath in classic blues style on "Are You Here, Are You There?," a powerful and poignant creation that personalizes things with a loving look back to move forward. It's the sort of hard-earned blues wisdom that elevates Lover's Plea into a rare realm contemporary blues' flashy youngsters can only hope to glimpse. (*** 1/2)

-- Michael Point

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

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