Kristin Hersh
Strange Angels

When sung to children, lullabies are meant to induce sleep. When sung to adults by Kristin Hersh, they have the opposite effect. And it seems that no matter how sweet or hushed the sound of Strange Angels, Hersh's lullabies disturb more than they comfort, jolting you awake when you're about to doze off. It can be a jarring experience, akin to what the artist herself calls "cold water coming for the warm-water junkies." But it can be oddly moving, too.

Similar to Hersh's 1994 solo debut, Hips and Makers, Strange Angels is a whispered testament, leaning on one voice and an acoustic guitar, with occasional splashes of piano, cello and strings. The result is far removed from Hersh's work with the alt-rock band Throwing Muses, which packed it in last year after a decade of struggle and eight full-length releases of coarse, uneven beauty. Along with her husband and kids, Hersh has made an even cleaner break from the past, leaving Boston for the solitude of the California desert near Joshua Tree.

True to her new home base, Strange Angels sounds like a collection of folk songs written and sung under the clear night sky. "Away, away ... gone away," Hersh sings at one point, and about the time you drift off with her, she delivers the kicker, "Fall into ... icy blue ... cold water." Thanks, mom, I needed that.

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Throughout the disc's 15 tracks, Hersh slides into focus for a moment, then fades out again with a non sequitur or far-out simile (for example, "like a hot pink kite with no string"). But it's worth withstanding such moments to hear her one-line epiphanies, from "I get weaker when you treat me like a queen" to "I broke me, I can't break you too."

While Hersh has long been cast as a mad poet (a role she helped create by confessing to bipolar depression), Strange Angels is really the work of a sane woman who, disillusioned by big-city life, has chosen to burrow into the desert sand. It's a mistake to read too much into Strange Angels, just as it's wrong to underestimate it.

The last time I saw Hersh perform in concert, I could have sworn she was staring into my soul with those intense blue eyes. Later I learned that she removes her contacts before taking the stage, the better to avoid stage fright. To loosely paraphrase Chrissie Hynde (by way of Oscar Wilde), we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are squinting at the stars. (****)

-- Keith Moerer

Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings
Struttin' Our Stuff

So, what does an ex-Stone do when he needs a break from overseeing his chain of English hamburger emporiums? Makes a CD, of course. Bill Wyman's put himself at the helm of a new band, the Rhythm Kings, providing bass, occasional vocals and a bit of songwriting in hopes of conjuring some of the emotional honesty he heard decades ago within the grooves of his treasured American blues, R&B and jazz imports.

Indeed, on Struttin' Our Stuff, it's tribute time, and Wyman is having a ball -- although his idea of fun is light years away from the perfunctory professionalism of the middle-aged Glimmer Twins or even the Dionysian swagger of vintage Stones. Think Dire Straits by way of J.J. Cale or, if you really know your music history, Andy Fairweather-Low and Kokomo. Like those artists, the Rhythm Kings and guests serve up an easygoing concoction that never fails to comfort as it swirls around its original sources -- namely Chicago blues and Memphis soul.

On the catchy "Stuff (Can't Get Enough)" and the lighthearted, traditionalist jazz/ blues lark, "Going Crazy Overnight," the low-register semi-singing of Wyman suggests a sore-throated Mose Allison doing Tommy's Uncle Ernie. Quaintly endearing, that. Ex-Squeeze member Paul Carrack, less a stranger to singing, leads the way on a decent version of the old flag-waver "Tobacco Road," while vocalist Geraint Watkins, yet another British rock vet, works up a light sweat with the band on gratifying, grin-inducing treatments of Howlin' Wolf's "Down in the Bottom" and Willie Mabon's "I'm Mad." Vocalist Beverly Skeete steps forward on the Wyman-penned blues number "Bad to Be Alone," as assorted brass, ex-Procol Harum leader Gary Brooker's swelling organ, Dave Hartley's piano and jazz man Martin Taylor's keen guitar fills accentuate the song's downcast mood.

In the end, the only fakery on Struttin' Our Stuff is the arch posturing of singer/organist Georgie Fame on the revival of Sascha Burland's obscure "Hole in My Soul" and on the cover of the Stones' "Melody." Yet even the latter tune is rescued by the simmering slow hand of Eric Clapton and the typically warmhearted playing of Wyman and his band. (*** 1/2)  

-- Frank-John Hadley

Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks
My Charmed Life
Carpe Diem

Denton's Little Jack Melody has come a long way from his humble, average origins. The former rock-and-roll bassist's 1991 debut, On the Blank Generation (released on Brave Combo's Four Dots label), instantly cast him as a quirky pop golden boy. So when his equally compelling 1994 follow-up, World of Fireworks, failed to ignite a second round of critical fervor, it was not only disappointing but a bit odd.

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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