The Ale Is Dear

Houston's Celtic-music community may be approaching critical mass. Sooner or later, a band playing the traditional music of the British Isles is going to come out of our city and become successful enough to be referred to as "the new Pogues." As much as I love Ceili's Muse, my money is on Clandestine. Here's why:

Clandestine's piper, E.J. Jones, is a veteran of both Mike Cusack's St. Thomas Episcopal bagpipe program and Lars Sloan's Hamilton Pipe Band. He's so good on the pipes that he's enjoyable indoors, and his reels and marches show the true potential of his oft-maligned instrument. This is especially evident when Jones surrenders the lead and plays rhythm behind the wild gypsy fiddle of Gregory McQueen, or polkas to the steady, hypnotic pounding of Rex Shaver's bodhran.

The band member most responsible for my prediction of possible fame and fortune, though, is Jennifer Hamel, who plays a mean 12-string guitar, sings like a young Joni Mitchell, is an admirable songwriter for one so young and is, frankly, a babe. Hamel is probably better at circular breathing than any female vocalist in Houston. No big deal, you say? Just try to recite one of the ten-line verses of "Rocky Road to Dublin" -- from the group's new The Ale Is Dear -- in nine-eights time without pausing long enough to take a breath. And when Hamel slows down a tad (this will probably get me in trouble, given that she's happily married and probably has no idea of the effect she's having), she has a "do me" voice that smolders like vintage Lauren Bacall.

Or maybe Hamel does know exactly what she's doing, especially when chanting her arrangement of Robert Burns' "Catcher in the Rye," to which she has seamlessly added the lines, "Jenny's a sweet young body / Jenny's seldom dry." Call me a dirty old man, but I'm a dirty old man who knows it's a rare songwriter who can add lines to Burns and make them work. (***)

-- Jim Sherman

The Tragically Hip
Trouble at the Henhouse

Even after several U.S. releases, Canada's the Tragically Hip is still one of that country's best-kept secrets. The reason? The band is totally resistant to the hit-single thing, preferring instead to win over American fans with its club shows and consistently intelligent -- if not always cuddly -- approach to its craft.

On its last CD, Day for Night, the Hip surprised longtime fans with a much more atmospheric (though no less compelling) batch of songs than usual. This airy, diffuse strategy continues on Trouble at the Henhouse. On it, the band once more carves out a musical niche with intriguing moods rather than winning hooks, weaving a multilayered, seamless sound much thicker than you'd expect from the standard two guitars, bass and drums lineup. Many of the tracks on Henhouse, notably "Gift Shop," "Springtime in Vienna" and "Put It Off," begin sparingly, then build to intense crescendos. That soft-to-loud dynamic, combined with potent, swirling guitars and the fidgety, polysyllabic lyrics of singer Gordon Downie, leave the listener sated at first. But soon after the music is over, you're hungry for another fix. (****)

-- Greg Barr
The Tragically Hip performs Saturday, June 22, at Rockefeller's.

George Michael

To his credit, George Michael has guts. He has to, to deal with the massive expectations he's raised for his first new CD in six years. After a two-year legal battle in which the pop star accused his former label of treating him like, well, a pop star when he wanted to be considered an artist, anything short of masterpiece would qualify Older as a disappointment. Since securing his release from Sony and hooking up with DreamWorks SKG, the question has become: now that Michael got what he wanted, can he deliver what he said he could? Older's answer: of course not.

In fairness, though, the 32-year-old semi-reformed teen idol's return comes close enough to greatness that, just maybe, he deserves to be cut some slack. Where Michael overestimates his talent, perhaps we've underestimated it.

In general, Older hasn't forsaken the supermodel world view of Michael's post-Wham! successes Faith and Listen Without Prejudice. Style is still a big part of his substance, and the word "baby" is still used ad nauseam. But Older is, as implied, a more mature set. Paying homage to Brazilian bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and his own Greek heritage, Michael stews his British/American R&B with Latin jazz pop ("To Be Forgiven") and Mediterranean swirls ("The Strangest Thing"). He paints relationships from cheap ("Fastlove") to otherworldly ("Jesus to a Child"), and characters from resolute ("Older") to uncertain ("Spinning the Wheel"). He even casts himself as a '90s Sinatra with the lounge-suitable "Move On."

Despite all of Older's high-stakes ambition, Michael manages to keep it immersed in a superbly melodic pop glaze that could turn most of its tracks into hits. It's a good thing, too, because the critics were hungry and eager to pounce, if they haven't already. (*** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

The Hollowbodies

Ever wonder what the Jayhawks could have done with a little more post-punk grit and better looking band members, or how much livelier Wilco would sound if they just picked up the tempo on occasion, or how much better the Gin Blossoms would be if they grew some brains, learned how to rock and stored away the sappy, predictable sentiments? The Hollowbodies have a pretty good idea. Lame, the group's major-label debut, manages to be a lot of things -- lo-fi and well-crafted, heartfelt and frivolous, unique and derivative, catchy and cacophonous, rootsy and modern, irritating and irresistible, maudlin and fun -- and often all at once. So while the Hollowbodies may be a handful at times, they quite obviously aren't lame. Unless, of course, someone has jiggered the dictionary definition of that word to include "damn fine" as a synonym. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Emperor Tomato Ketchup

What follows is an argument as to why, based on its latest CD, Stereolab is, pound for pound, the greatest groop (their spelling) currently operating on this overpopulated planet.

You want retro? Get a load of this equipment, from the vintage Farfisa and Vox organs to the ever-lovable Moog synthesizers. You want futurist? Put together, it's the sound of not-so-well-oiled machinery, churning and sputtering into space-age bachelor pad heaven and post-industrial hell.

You want pure pop? Dig how they mine the mod sounds of the '60s, from Burt Bacharach ("Emperor Tomato Ketchup") to Francoise Hardy ("Slow Fast Hazel"). You want avant-garde? Check the blatant liftings from '70s kraut-rockers Neu! and Can, plus the appropriations of Philip Glass' disjointed wordplay ("Motoroller Scalatron") and Ornette Coleman's jagged alto sax ("Percolator").

You want meaning? These songs are loaded with optimism, progressivism, humanism and dashes of Marxism. You want nonsense? There's plenty of la-la-las to lead us into oblivion, and anyway, head vocalist Laetitia Sadier sings in French half the time.

You want a groove band? Tracks such as "Metronomic Underground" and "Les Yper-Sound" cast a funk trance heavier than voodoo, and they're at least as danceable as any neo-hippie tripe. You want a band that rocks? Try "The Noise of Carpet" for its rug-burning guitar and acceleration drum whacks.

Yesterday, tomorrow, now: Stereolab's the one. (****)
-- Roni Sarig

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman