Townes Van Zandt
The Highway Kind
Sugar Hill

The late Townes Van Zandt has been heralded as one of the finest songwriters of our time, but his peculiar genius is hard to define. Not an overwhelming singer or guitarist -- though his fingerstyle technique shows a mastery, and delicate revision, of the Texas blues -- Van Zandt's reputation rests almost solely on his use of words. He had an intuitive grasp of the inevitability of the blues lyric, and whereas most blues artists lay bare the soul through commanding vocals and biting vernacular, Van Zandt got the same effect through poetic associations, through diamond-hard details, through phrases you could never imagine but that, when touched by that unrefined, unbridled voice of his, become plain as pain. "My days they are the highway kind," he sang. "They only come to leave, but the leaving I don't mind, it's the coming that I crave."

The Highway Kind captures Van Zandt at the end. It mixes unreleased studio recordings (covers of "Lost Highway" and "Wreck on the Highway") and live solo versions of three songs from his previous studio release No Deeper Blue, plus assorted chestnuts, both obscure originals ("My Proud Mountains" and "Rake") and songs by friends (Guy Clark's "Dublin Blues"). It is a harsh, black record, a death letter from an artist in his twilight, his voice nearly destroyed by hard living but still capable, on good nights, of cutting power. To hear the spare "Lover's Lullaby" (mislabeled on the CD as "A Song For") is to taste ecstasy; to hear the stumbling "Darcy Farrow" is simply unnecessary. One hopes that people new to Van Zandt's work, the ones who are approaching it for the first time out of curiosity over the attention given his death, will look first to another recent Sugar Hill release, Rear View Mirror, then to Van Zandt's many studio recordings, and when satisfied with Townes in his prime, perhaps then, only then, should they turn to these late, trembling recordings. (**)

-- Roy Kasten

Drawn to the Deep End

Following Olympian, its 1995 debut, Gene was lambasted in critical circles not so much for sounding like the Smiths, but for playing up that likeness to an irritating degree. Singer Martin Rossiter had (and still has) Morrissey's world-weary eunuch's stance down to a miserable science, and guitarist Steve Mason's mastery of Johnny Marr's neatly strummed melodramatics did little to spoil the effect.

On Drawn to the Deep End, however, the English quartet seems to be working extra shifts to outmaneuver its debt to the Morrissey/Marr songbook. Gene's sophomore effort is a lavishly accoutered statement of self, disarmingly personal in its confessions of love, hate and self-loathing. The group is aiming for conceptual oneness here, but in the process, it occasionally surrender pop-music necessities -- namely melody, irony and restraint -- to the bigger picture.

Rossiter, struggling as he is to find the Martin behind the Morrissey, is Deep End's most frequent embarrassment, often straining his vibrato to the point of parody. Indeed, Gene is always in some danger of drowning in its own perspiration (try sitting through "New Amusements" without feeling thirsty). Still, there are worse sins in rock than trying too hard. And Gene actually rests a spell for "Fighting Fit," a cannier Smiths rip-off than anything on Olympian. Unlike before, though, the imitation smacks of good fun rather than premeditated forgery. Guess it's all a matter of context. (** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Aphex Twin
Richard D. James Album

With a close-up of his devilish face beaming out from the cover of his "self-titled" CD, Richard James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, is clearly out to defy the conventional wisdom that there's a lack of star power in electronica's blips and bleeps. In some ways, Richard D. James is the artist's unveiling, the CD where image and personality become a crucial part of his music's identity. Richard D. James isn't so much electronic music as it is Richard's music.

Ironically, though, of all the studio rats currently churning out electronica, James is arguably the least in need of image development. With previous albums -- both as Aphex Twin and under aliases such as Polygon Window and AFX -- James always remained a distinct outsider while shuttling from industrial to ambient to trip-hop. He borrowed styles, but molded them into his own sonic universe. Now, with past electronic fashions already diced through his beat processor, it's only natural that James would have a go at drum and bass.

Once again, though, genre descriptions don't stick. Despite its unmistakably jungle beats, Richard D. James is hardly a jungle album. In fact, it's not too far from being a great pop album. Even without vocals, the opener "4" is punchy and melodic enough to sound like a prototype for hit singles of the near future. Even closer to conventional song form is "Milkman," where James actually sings a naughty little ditty. Two other tracks with vocals, "To Cure a Weakling Child" and "Beetles," parlay their respective minimalist and kraut-rock signifiers into something that's pleasingly familiar -- retro, even.

Where Goldie introduced many Americans to jungle music by tempering it with something more palatable -- that is, soulful vocals -- Aphex Twin's drum and bass is distinctive because it doesn't try to be jungle at all. For that matter, it doesn't try to be pop either. But somehow, by simply being itself, it winds up being a quirky and thoroughly enjoyable mix of both. (*** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

Howard Johnson and Gravity
Verve Records

It only took 30 years, but Howard Johnson and Gravity have found a record company brave enough to record a tuba choir. (If you don't think it took bravery, just try saying the words "tuba choir" in mixed company and see what results you get.) Johnson, a seasoned player who's been featured with the likes of Gil Evans, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, takes his first opportunity to be a leader as the call to show the jazz potential in what has long been considered an awkward instrument.

The only thing as dumbfounding as Johnson's idea is the range of music covered on Gravity. The record stands on actual jazz merit, not novelty. Johnson and a handpicked group of tuba illuminati -- Marcus Rojaz, Dave Bargeron, Joe Daley, Carl Kleinstuber, Tom Malone, Nedra Johnson and Bob Stewart -- are able to gracefully push the enormous horn to the very apex of its four-octave limit. Not the bizarre project the very idea of a tuba CD may conjure up, Gravity instead puts on the dog with rhythmically adventurous, harmonically complex music. Johnson brought out the best, and it shows. Nowhere is there a lack of ideas. Rather, inventive harmony and execution are up front. High points include Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," a robust treatment of Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana" and particularly the subtly worked, intricately harmonied version of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments." (*** 1/2)

-- Brendan Doherty

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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Brendan Doherty
Roy Kasten
Contact: Roy Kasten
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig