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Bjork
Homogenic
Elektra

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
Freedom

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
Hightone

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."

But booze isn't the only item on the list of time-honored C&W song topics Watson effectively covers. Celebrations, ruminations and lamentations on blue-collar life are abundant on "Jack's Truck Stop & Cafe," "That's Pride," "Life Is Messy" and "Leave Me Alone." Women -- in all their cheating and/or cheated glory -- also fascinate Watson, and "I Think of You" and "Ball and Chain" fairly resonate with his romantic pain. All these elements come together best on the title cut, wherein the drunken protagonist weaves the titles of the saddest country tunes ever written into his litany of woes. The pain and weariness is tangible when he punctuates each chorus with a line brilliant in its simplicity: "I hate these songs." Watson should take some satisfaction in knowing that those words will probably never be used to describe the tunes on this remarkable CD. (****)

-- Rick Koster

Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Forever
Loud/RCA

Boot Camp Clik
For the People
Priority

This is the tale of two oversized, East Coast rap cartels. One of them is a dynamic, rip-roaring, hard-selling group of freestyle-flowing supermen, ready to knock the blocks off anyone who's willing to test the streetwise fury of their "45-caliber grammar" ... and the other one is Wu-Tang Clan.

Just kidding, Wu fans.
It's safe to say that Wu-Tang Clan is the new edition of hip-hop. Though they've garnered more fans, sales and prestige as solo artists (especially Ol' Dirty Bastard, whose ghetto-hedonistic shenanigans got him a spot on Mariah Carey's hit "Fantasy" remix), it's when they're together that the Clan maneuvers their patented form of epic hip-hop, round-neck rap. The Wu-Tang boys blast off with a fierce-grinned formula on the new double CD, Wu-Tang Forever. Beginning with a Gil-Scott Heron-inspired intro, disc one has the members of the Clan, who are too numerous to mention here, burst in with looping bass beats and raw, confrontational, energetically frenzied rhymes. The minute they roll into "Re-united," with its spaghetti Western rhythm, they come on more like gunslingers than like rappers.

But sadly, disc two loses that edge. Loaded up with 16 tunes, five more than the first disc, the second disc squanders its oomph through repetitiveness. Despite an ass-whipping start, Wu-Tang Forever shows the main problem of going on forever -- more of the same. (***)

As for the Boot Camp Clik, a set of Brooklyn bombers who are similar to (and also different from) their Staten Island contemporaries, they do their listeners a favor by compacting their beats and rhymes on a single CD, For the People. Unlike the mechanically extroverted Wu-Tang, the Clik -- consisting of lead men Buckshot and Da Cocoa Brovaz and other assorted accessories -- keep their swagger low-key. Their sound is simple, giving off stylized, lab-tested studio grooves that result in a no-big-whoop reaction. But their mood feels slippery and nocturnal. With coolly sensitized tracks such as "Night Riders," their words teeter on a peculiar devilishness that keeps the CD from seeming like it's going on too long. I'm not saying that the Clik is better that the Clan, but they have enough hip verve to be a good point above mediocre. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Kacy Crowley
Anchorless
Atlantic

Even in this era of the blindly confessional female singer/songwriter, Austin-based Kacy Crowley reveals an awful lot. Frequently unflinching in its intimacy, Anchorless, Crowley's major-label debut, is like a public key to her personal diary -- and it leaves you feeling slightly creepy for rifling through its pages.

The details of the Austin-based Crowley's life include a wild-child period when she dropped out of college in the Northeast and headed to Los Angeles. Once there, Crowley became more intimately involved with Deadhead drug culture and small-time criminals than with music industry movers and shakers. She details those experiences with harrowing candor in the plucky, detailed narratives of Anchorless cuts such as "Hand to Mouthville," "Scars" and the track that could easily serve as her biography, "Rebellious Young Women" ("We are rebellious / We do life until we are sore").

Crowley eventually grew up, dried out and relocated to Austin, where she initially busked for change along Sixth Street. Her quirky, imperfect vocals and foundation in acoustic-based folk and pop (with harmless rock and blues overtones) inevitably invite comparisons to everyone from Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow to Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams. Yet Crowley's plaintive vocals on "Vertigo" and "Anything" from Anchorless hint at a developing low-key charm all her own. And in case you were laboring under the assumption that Anchorless was nothing but a mopefest, Crowley manages to pick up the tempo on a few lively -- if not outright buoyant -- numbers. As Crowley's music matures and moves beyond merely pondering her past, don't be surprised if you find her center-stage at a future Lilith Fair extravaganza. (***) -- Bob Ruggiero  

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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