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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads
Reprise

In the past, I've never much cared for Nick Cave. It always seemed to me that he was reaching just a bit too hard for some shapelessly ominous black cloud of gothic pretense, and grasping only the shapeless pretense part. Murder Ballads, though, is such a focused blast of mythic angst that I can't help but change my tune.

"Murder Ballads" is truthful advertising: ten narrative stories in rhythmic verse recounting murder after grisly murder in Cave's best Ancient Mariner warble. Sonically, the disc is produced with such an intimate sound -- alternately moody and huge -- that you can't hear the vocals without conjuring up a vision of the vocalist, and he's always wearing a black cape, stepping off a horse on some dusky moor, looking for a room at the inn and unraveling his terrible tale like some lost soul from a Peter Cushing movie.

Even when the vocalist isn't Cave, but instead is Kylie Minogue, Polly Jean Harvey or Shane MacGowan, all of whom perform duets here, it's a convincing act -- a realized piece of fiction whose murder theme gives it current impact. Just try listening to "Song of Joy" without thinking of O.J. and Nicole. Mass murder, private murders, unsolved murders and punished murders all get due coverage, and Cave doesn't pull his graphic punches. Bullets enter brains, bowels spill on floors and characters treat each other in such a fashion that if I were to repeat certain lyrics here, I'd have the FCC on my ass.

Cave closes the CD with Bob Dylan's relatively upbeat "Death is Not the End." It's a generous offering after a long day's journey into night, but my bet is that Cave tacked it on as a joke. After listening to the first nine tracks of Murder Ballads, it's likely Dylan himself would recant his sentiment. -- Brad Tyer

Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire
Epic

Rage Against the Machine -- a name that says everything. Rage, after all, is the band's most ubiquitous and successfully conveyed emotion. It seethes through Tim Bob's thundering bass and Brad Wilk's pounding drums; it's in Tom Morello's machine-gun guitars and in Zack de la Rocha's screams and sputtered raps. The vitriol spewed on Evil Empire, RATM's long-awaited follow-up to its 1993 debut, owes much to Chuck D.'s polemic fury and rapid-fire urgency, though, as always, the band rages without hip-hop machinery in favor of the heavy-duty power tools of rock. But whether RATM's approach amounts to revolutionary rap, protest metal or a combination of the two, the group's command of sonic rage is what matters. It makes Evil Empire a powerful assault in any musical language.

What's said -- not what's played -- is Evil Empire's biggest problem. At times, RATM vents its widespread indignation sharply ("Vietnow," "Without a Face"), but more often the rage is expressed rather clumsily. To avoid sounding like the empty rants of confused post-pubescent rebellion, sentiments this angry should be aimed at something more specific than an entire race or nation or government. If RATM's raw musical muscle were grinding over a focused message, Lord knows how potent it could be. -- Roni Sarig

Iggy Pop
Naughty Little Doggie
Virgin

If you know a 13-year-old boy whose parents you want to drive crazy, give the kid Iggy Pop's Naughty Little Doggie. It's not enough that Iggy's Stooges were years ahead of their time, playing that havoc rock and roll that we now call punk. Now he has managed to live long enough to be a multi-generational bad influence. The weight of the world is in Iggy's voice when he sings "Me, I went straight, and serious too / There wasn't much else that I could do" on "Look Away." But mostly, Naughty Little Doggie is loud, confrontational, three-chord songs about sex. After a few high-volume weeks of sending his parents down the road to the madhouse, the average adolescent who falls under Naughty Little Doggie's spell might well start a garage band and drive the whole neighborhood nuts. So be a pal; go ahead, give the kid this CD. His parents will get over it -- maybe. -- Jim Sherman

Terry Ellis
Southern Gal
EastWest

As a member of En Vogue, Terry Ellis was one of the few bright spots on an R&B landscape hopelessly glutted with formulaic schmaltz. A creation of songwriters/ producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster, En Vogue was as prefabricated as the next guys and gals, but once the package came together, boy, did it kick some derriere.

Looking to quadruple the singers' output (as well as their profits), McElroy and Foster have now separated En Vogue into four solo acts -- a liquidation that could only be a cause for celebration, given the prospect of four different follow-ups to En Vogue's 1992 classic Funky Divas.  

Unfortunately, Ellis' Southern Gal -- the first of the quartet's lone shots -- doesn't live up to En Vogue's legacy. Though it starts promisingly enough with "She's a Lady," a Southern-fried, violin-streaked sisterhood anthem, Southern Gal quickly descends into the slow-tempo slush and sappy cliche that make the songs indistinguishable from one another and from the countless other R&B ballads littering urban radio.

The second half offers a few finer moments: "Slow Dance"'s flute hook, the gospel-funk chorus on "You Make Me High" and Ellis' cover of Enchantment's soul-soaked "It's You That I Need." Despite these high points, Southern Gal never captures Ellis' Texas homegirl vibe, much less her funky diva-hood.

-- Roni Sarig

Translator
Everywhere That We Were ... the
Best of Translator
Wire Train
Last Perfect Thing ... a Retrospective
Columbia/Legacy

Chances are pretty good that you've never heard of Translator. No need to feel guilty; most everyone outside of Translator's adopted home of San Francisco (and likely more than a few inside) had his or her ears trained on events in the northeastern United States and England during the band's artistically fruitful, but commercially hapless, run from 1979 to 1986.

Now, Columbia/Legacy has made it easy to forgive yourself for such a glaring, if understandable, oversight with the long overdue Translator compilation, Everywhere That We Were ... the Best of Translator. A decade ago, the trends hadn't quite caught up to this farsighted quartet. While others basked in the glow of new wave and punk, Translator toiled away in a thoroughly modernist jangle-pop void. Its stylistic jerks and starts were daunting, but perhaps most unusual for the time was the group's willingness to reach back to the '60s songbook for the sounds of its California home (the Byrds, in particular), deftly merging them with the more contemporary sounds taking hold at the time.

Despite the lack of public interest, Translator's seven years together resulted in four high-caliber releases made even better by the deft touch of producers David Kahne and Ed Stasium, both of whom went on to more high-profile gigs. The first two Kahne-produced efforts, Heartbeats and Triggers and No Time Like Now, contained the leanest and most focused Translator product -- metaphor-laced, folk-inflected classics such as "Everywhere," "Favorite Drug," "Un-Alone" and "Circumstance Laughing." All of these are included on the new collection, along with selections from the less impressive efforts, Translator and Evening of the Harvest.

A slightly different version of Everywhere That We Were ... was released in 1986 after Translator disbanded, and true to the band's awful commercial track record, it was largely ignored.

Chances are somewhat better that Wire Train has caught your attention at one time or another, but, more than likely, it was years after the band was past its mid-'80s prime. Aside from the California city they had in common, Wire Train and Translator also shared a label (415/ Columbia) and a producer (David Kahne). Like Translator, Wire Train has four releases to its credit (spread unevenly over the nine years from 1983 to 1992), but squeaked out its most unique material early on. And like Translator, Wire Train worked the post-modern folk-pop vein, hearkening back to past singer/songwriter ideals without relying too obviously on them.

More than Translator, though, Wire Train was hampered by an overtly arty approach, which dates some of the tunes on the new Columbia/Legacy collection, Last Perfect Thing ... a Retrospective and sets them adrift into murky, mildly pretentious waters. Still, the group was obviously off on its own kick, delivering an unfashionable, confessional-style message drenched in layers of chiming guitars that flew in the face of the synth-schlock of the day.

If you're like me, sifting through the generally well-chosen selections on these two CDs will provide some of the same emotional charge that came with the discovery of Big Star's once-dormant '70s catalog. And while Translator and Wire Train may not carry the same weight in alt-rock circles as Alex Chilton and company, they still deserve a belated handshake for going against the grain so that everyone could move forward -- even if they did get passed by along the way. -- Hobart Rowland

St. Thomas' Pipes and Drums
World Champion
Bellaire Records

Much ado has been made because a Houston sports franchise won a couple of national championships. Of course, these events were -- in a 600-monkeys-with-typewriters way -- a statistical eventuality. Less likely -- and, to some, much more impressive -- is that a group of young Houstonians traveled to Scotland for the drum and bagpipe Juvenile World Championships and swept the field. And did so twice.  

Under the direction of director Mike Cusack, the St. Thomas' Episcopal School pipe and drum band has become the best youth bagpipe ensemble in the world -- and they have the trophies, and this CD, to prove it.

Those unfortunates who still wince at the mere mention of the word "bagpipe" have only heard the instrument in the hands of untrained amateurs seeking a cultural identity. Well-tuned pipes played by trained professionals (which these lads are, despite their tender years) are the equivalent of a portable pipe organ.

Indeed, I've heard Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" performed on numerous pipe organs, but St. Thomas' version, for both solemn majesty and religious ecstasy, is the best I've heard. Much of World Champion -- artfully produced by Don Janicek, which means KQUE listeners will know where to find this disc -- is smooth, well-arranged medleys that draw on everything from "Oh, Susannah" and the "Marine Hymn" to "Gary Owen" and "Bonnie Galloway."

Of special note are the traditional "Scotland the Brave" and "A Hundred Pipers," which craft soaring crags and windswept highlands out of thick, humid Houston air. If you've long opined that bagpipes didn't have to sound like scalded cats, here's local proof that you were right. -- Jim Sherman


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