Graham Parker and the Figgs
The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour
Razor & Tie

It was basically a one-off deal: The Figgs, a semi-obscure power-pop quartet out of Saratoga Springs, New York, would open for Graham Parker on his fall 1996 tour and, while they were at it, provide musical support for the headliner. Fortunately, someone had the sense to realize Parker was onto something when he recruited such a young, excitable bunch. On The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour, Parker and the Figgs have a go at every significant stage in the artist's 20-year career. Apparently, the chemistry was especially magical at the Albany, New York, gig captured here, and the minimal small talk between songs means the relentlessly punchy pace of the performance never lags.

In the Figgs, Parker found a backup band to rival his original group, the Rumour, one that is capable of regurgitating the pub brawl vitriol that gave his classic late-'70s releases their tightly wound poignancy. Anyone underwhelmed by the refined grooves of Parker's last few solo efforts, or the half-chewed feel of much of last year's Acid Bubblegum, ought to take pleasure in Last Tour's recharged vibe. The Figgs have never been known for their finesse, and Parker chooses his material accordingly, feeding off the band's punkier habits (i.e., playing slightly ahead of beat) and their starry-eyed reverence for his old gems. In fact, the Figgs's impetuous romps through "Local Girls," "Take Everything," "Fool's Gold" and "Soul Shoes," among others, suggest that they dig these songs more than the man himself. And these days, Parker could use a pat on the back from his post-punk disciples -- almost as much as he needed this swift kick in the ass. (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

Ani DiFranco
Living in Clip
Righteous Babe

Ani DiFranco, the high priestess of punk folk, continually updates old-guard feminism with intimate vignettes disguised as songs of love, lust and corporate head games. Like most troubadours, a good portion of her life is spent on the road playing "music for people, not posterity."

So the only surprising thing about this live two-CD set is just how late in her career it comes. After all, DiFranco has been doing things her way since she started playing seedy Buffalo bars at the age of nine. More than two hours of recordings from her 1996 tour recap her musical history from the early days of "Anticipate" to entries off the current Dilate. "Gravel" is the only previously unreleased track, but "Hide and Seek" is a rarity, since DiFranco has decided to not play it any longer.

Living in Clip, which refers to the sound an amplifier in power overload makes, strips down the genius of DiFranco to its bare state, capturing monologues and takes on songs that never occur the same way twice. In fact, it exposes a girl cum revolutionary whose bark is usually much worse than her bite. As she ad libs with drummer Andy Stochansky or repeatedly thanks her devoted following, one realizes DiFranco is just thankful to be there strumming her guitar and sharing her soul.

Her winsome brand of urban grit doesn't suffer from the overproduction or overcontemplation that's often the downfall of studio projects. Like all concert releases, annoying audience shrieks, silly flubs and instrument hum accompany the music. But you quickly forgive all this upon hearing a magnificent crescendo in the orchestral version of "Amazing Grace" or a powerfully eerie echo vibrating in "Both Hands." How do you say L-O-V-E ? (****)

-- Carrie Bell

Jack Ingram
Livin' or Dyin'
Rising Tide/Universal

Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen make decent records, but lousy influences. That could have easily been the lesson behind Livin' or Dyin', Dallasite/frat-boy fave Jack Ingram's major-label debut. Instead, the lesson may just be that sometimes vital pieces of country music come across without any discernible lessons -- and to quote Ingram's lead track, there's "Nothin' Wrong with That."

Who woulda thunk it? Music City is a long way from Texas, and yet Ingram managed to leave Dallas a flimsy collegiate singer/songwriter and return from Nashville a well-rounded Lone Star troubadour. Steve Earle, with whom Ingram shares a coarse throat and a proclivity for gravel-laced narratives, is likely to get much of the credit for the makeover, although it's easy to argue that Earle's production is actually less important here than Ingram's own steady maturation. As it should be, Ingram's song writing is the most obvious attraction of Livin' Or Dyin'; he's found a way to pen with equal conviction both the top 40 swing of "That's Not Me" and a bona fide heartbreaker such as "Ghost of a Man."

But Ingram also knows a song that fits his voice when he hears one, and he proves himself a formidable interpreter with a surprisingly agile take on Guy Clark's "Rita Ballou" and an insightfully tongue-in-cheek approach to "Dallas" that winds up far more flattering to Jimmie Dale Gilmore than to the city he's leaving behind. And when Jerry Jeff Walker joins Ingram for a breezy duet on "Picture on My Wall," the tune becomes just a plain old guilty pleasure. On a disc so deep with real pleasures, there's nothing wrong with that. (*** 1/2)

-- Andy Langer

Like Swimming

Morphine's kind of music, the kind that connects with people on a very physical level, is so simple that it's amazing no one's done it before. But as far as I can tell, no one has. Using exclusively lower-register instruments -- Mark Sandman's two-string bass and baritone voice and Dana Colley's bass and baritone saxophones -- the band's songs actually reverberate in the chest, treating listeners to a low-impact massage. And anything that feels this good can't be bad.

But that distinctive low-rock sound isn't just Morphine's blessing. It's also their curse. The instantly recognizable sound limits their arrangements: Voice and sax can each hit only one note at a time (though Colley sometimes manages to honk two saxes at once), while the bass can manage a two-note interval at best. It's hard to be dynamic using only three or four sounds. Now, four years after the excellent breakthrough CD Cure for Pain, the men behind Morphine have long ago played out their novelty appeal. And despite Sandman's lounge lizard affectations and the occasional use of strange guitar inventions or eerie keyboards, Morphine has never been as adventurous as it seems; except for maybe on the debut, Good, the group has always fallen closer to frat rock than no wave.

So where does that leave Like Swimming, Morphine's fourth album (and first since signing on with the big boys at DreamWorks)? Pretty much where the band started -- with a blessing and a curse. As with the previous CDs, Like Swimming, full of loping bass lines and slithery sax riffs that strut through jazzy rock numbers such as "Wishing Well" and "Empty Box," is easy to appreciate. But while newcomers may be happy with the band's warm swing, others will pine for the first time they heard Cure for Pain. Only with the CD's closer, "Swing It Low" (a title that could be a band manifesto), does Morphine hint at changes to come: With guitar, keyboards, programmed drums and no saxophone, the song (first released as a Sandman solo project) proves it's possible to capture Morphine's noir moods in mid-range as well. Too bad Tom Waits already proved that years ago. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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Carrie Bell
Andy Langer
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig