Richard Thompson
Mirror Blue

John Hiatt came out of the gates last year, as some neglected songwriter or another does each season, with a new record poised to deliver the wider acclaim that the critics always swore he deserved. And unlike perennial underdogs Marshall Crenshaw, Graham Parker and Warren Zevon, Hiatt actually got something close to his due with Perfectly Good Guitar. So who's to say that Mirror Blue won't break through to a broader audience for the long-laboring Richard Thompson?

The purchasing public, probably. Hiatt got his foot in the door by letting his hair down and indulging in a set of "knucklehead rock" with kids half his age. Thompson's folk-rock eclecticism, and sense of doom, are harder to crack. Not oppressive, to a fan at least, but the man who once wrote a lyric (in 1972's "End of the Rainbow") advising a cradle-bound child that "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow / there's nothing to grow up for anymore," is back with an ode to a woman, "I Can't Wake Up to Save My Life," reading, in part, "You smell like something fresh from the tomb / You squeeze too hard, you insist on kissing / when it seems like half your face is missing / and your hair's turned into reptiles hissing." Not everybody wants to consider Thompson's husky query: "Did your dreams die young, were they too hard-won?" Thompson writes love songs, too, but they have an unnerving tendency to be in the past tense.

Unnerving enough, in all likelihood, to leave Mirror Blue just another in a long line of richly rewarding albums -- the kind with more depth than most care to dive to -- that fall between the popular cracks and drop into the permanent collections of critics (who don't even have to pay for the damned things) and a few already-fans. Which, by the time one is drawn into the gorgeous descending spiral of romance, hatred and revenge that is "The Way that It Shows," seems a crying damn shame.

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-- Brad Tyer

Vic Chesnutt
Texas Hotel

This guy has that pretension thing down: Chesnutt sings a Stevie Smith poem, fer Chrissake, plus has the cojones to sample the lady's own voice to intro the song. But he pulls it off, mostly because he's got one of those voices that sounds like it's been strip-mined straight from rich graveyard dirt. Which is a horribly pretentious thing to say, but that's part of the point -- Chesnutt seems to be built from the ground up from the purple prose of Faulkner and all his Faulknerian imitators.

The key is this: all that gothic Southernism is inside him, in the timbre of his wail, so it doesn't often intrude into his lyrics. The flat words wind up almost straightforward: "I tried to learn from the psychiatrist / how to stay calm and minimize risk / but I should've kept all those appointments / I'm a gonna need 'em, I'm coming disjointed."

So call Chesnutt a Southerner who's learned as much from Raymond Carver as he has from Flannery O'Connor, one who knows when to ramble on and when to shut up: "It's just a general freak that is boiling in me / and I'm terrified what it is gonna dislodge / I done shit everywhere there is to eat / guess it's time for me to get the fuck out of Dodge." (Texas Hotel Records are available from 712 Wilshire Blvd. No. 151, Santa Monica, CA 90401.)

-- Ross Grady

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Matador Records

Though it's only the band's second full-length LP, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain finds Pavement already resorting to misplaced nostalgia, which is inexcusable under the best of circumstances, but especially when it's aimed at things like the glory days of rock and roll. Those were the days, according to the album's first single, "Cut Your Hair," when public image didn't matter quite so goddamned much.

Or else it did. The fact that I can't tell which -- thanks to lines like "I can't remember a line / I can't remember a word / but I don't care, I don't care / didja see the drummer's hair?" -- means Pavement has retained at least some of the complexity which made their Slanted and Enchanted debut so compelling. Unfortunately, they haven't held on to nearly enough.

Slanted and Enchanted was an indie-pop smash; its absurdly catchy tunes served guilty pleasures to even the most hardcore noise freaks, thanks largely to the intricate guitar fuzz layered beneath the falsetto "sha-la-las." In a world where big, important ideas and mediocre execution are the defining aesthetic, Pavement wrote convoluted, densely layered, downright silly songs about girls and cigars.

It's that density of execution that's missing from Crooked Rain. The trademark guitar spizzle is mostly gone, the vocals are mixed loud enough to hear even at unobtrusively low volumes, and the overlapping layers of noise have been separated, sectioned off, reduced to safe levels. What's left is good, weird, country-tinged guitar pop that's occasionally as beautiful as Pavement used to be. I guess I shouldn't want more, but I do.

-- Ross Grady

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