Mercury Falling

For years, Sting has struggled to keep his effective pop song writing from being drowned out by his lofty musical and lyrical ambitions. As recently as 1993's Ten Summoner's Tales, he succeeded, showing that his penchant for unorthodox meters and counter-intuitive key changes can lift his music to an adventurous and brilliant level. But on the disappointing Mercury Falling, the dam bursts. Unable to keep his indulgences in check, Sting has made his latest effort amount to a collection of spiritless jazz-rock numbers.

Many of Mercury Falling's songs are overburdened with conspicuous artiness. On "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets," Sting delivers a listless vocal sung entirely in French. And the atypical time signature on "I Hung My Head" dominates the hollow tune it's intended to support. But the CD's nadir is the long, uninspired Euro-gospel "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot."

The CD's nods to simplicity -- "Lithium Sunset" and "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" -- show Sting at his most tuneful and earnest. The latter song, a peculiar ode to divorce, has Sting singing at the sky, searching for a soothing presence. When he arrives at the line "I chose two stars for my kids, and one star for my wife," he provides one of Mercury Falling's few affecting moments.

While Sting occasionally shows that he hasn't lost his flair for subtlety and precision, his seemingly arbitrary high-flown musical goals dominate Mercury Falling. And again, the question goes unanswered: why does such a gifted singer/songwriter insist on stashing his ability to create enjoyable, meaningful pop beneath such "difficult" clutter? -- Gerard Choucroun

Dread Zeppelin
No Quarter Pounder
Birdcage Records

The recurring hallucination goes something like this: through a series of screwups, Dread Zeppelin gets hired to play the halftime show at an Ole Miss football game. When the band plays its reggae-Presley version of "Dixie" from No Quarter Pounder's version of "American Trilogy," the crowd storms the field and hangs Dread Zeppelin's frontman, Tortelvis, from the goal posts. A thousand years later, a much better world is dominated by a whimsical, tolerant, fun-loving culture that hails Tortelvis as the true savior and regards Mr. Presley as a minor, and possibly false, prophet.

Dread Zeppelin -- in case you've been asleep the last decade or so -- is a big joke that, through humor and talent, has transcended itself. The idea of a reggae band fronted by an Elvis impersonator performing Led Zeppelin cover tunes should have been, at most, a one-hit novelty. But because Dread Zep told the joke so well, they've endured and won approving nods from even those '70s survivors who thought Zeppelin sucked almost as bad as disco. It's for just such survivors that we're treated to the broken-glass-in-a-furnace fusion of "Brick House (Of the Holy)." Some of us were around during both flavors of that bullshit, and if anyone has a right to laugh at the times we lived through, it's the class of '76, here on the 20th anniversary of the end of our misspent youth. -- Jim Sherman

Kim Richey
Kim Richey

Every now and then, the Nashville conveyor belts slip off line and churn out an authentic, worthwhile new talent. Given that those now-and-thens are becoming fewer and fewer, the Music City-based Kim Richey was a fluke worth waiting for. Richey's soaring voice and wistful tales of hope and distress are wrenched from the chilly winters of her rural Ohio upbringing, and they take a hatchet to the glazed-over conventions that bind much of today's country music.

And yet Kim Richey, impeccably produced and dripping with honeyed hooks, is not all that distanced from its target market. A few critics have dropped Richey into a space somewhere between Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter (she's toured with the latter), and other than her superiority in the vocal department, what separates Richey from the Reba McEntires of the pack is her ability to pen down-home tunes that are thematically predictable but rarely seeped in cliche.

A songsmith first and foremost (she wrote the number one hit "Nobody Wins" with Radney Foster), Richey is as honest to her gut instincts on her debut as she is hungry for an unabashed hit. If we're lucky, maybe her thoughtful concessions to the mainstream will rub off on the rest of the country music industry. It's worth hoping for, anyway. -- Hobart Rowland

Mark Eitzel
60 Watt Silver Lining
Warner Bros.

Former American Music Club vocalist Mark Eitzel's song writing has made him a perennial critics' favorite, but his band's sales failed to keep up with their rave reviews. Eitzel's solo debut is likely to follow a similar path -- the disc, despite its high-yield lyrical ore, is an acquired taste. That observation comes from someone who, at various times, has been infatuated with the music of Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon and Paul Kelly. Eitzel, well qualified to ride as the Fourth Horseman of that Psycho-Angst Songwriters' Apocalypse, nevertheless rides behind his brethren because of his trouble finding worthy melodies to go with the sharp and frequent points in his prose.

Granted, there will be those for whom 60 Watt Silver Lining -- especially the Tom- Waits-meets-Charles-Bukowski "Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon" -- will ring like a bell on first listen. For that select group, I suspect, a nervous breakdown would be a considerable improvement over their current emotional state. The more stable among us will more than likely find themselves slipping into 60 Watt Silver Lining gradually. For while Eitzel has a voice that manages -- simultaneously and almost unbearably -- both a guttural slur and a nasal whine, it's hard not to admire what he does with the language. -- Jim Sherman

Sebastian Whittaker and the Creators
The Valley of the Kings
Justice Records

From the first track -- the somber, determined "Hear My Prayer" -- to the last -- a noisy, upbeat take on the standard "The Way You Look Tonight" -- The Valley of the Kings is firmly grounded in all the best attributes of vintage jazz and blues quartets.

Originally recorded in 1990, this seven-track CD includes originals by drummer/bandleader Sebastian Whittaker, along with one composition -- the languid, snaky "Too Sensitive" -- by tenor sax man Shelley Carroll Paul. If the steady-driving blues rhythms and gritty harmonies remind you all too much of classic Blue Note performances (the early-'60s pairing of Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter, for instance), there are still ample surprises and refinements to help you through those uneasy moments of deja vu.

Also helping to erase the suggestions of the past is the light touch of Stefan Karlsson, who often takes a lyrical path up through the higher range of the keyboard with a pure, chilling tone usually reserved for classical pianists. While saxophone and drums dominate throughout, their synergy is so appealing that the rest of the quartet settles comfortably into supporting roles, showcasing the soloists' talents with understated contrast. -- Bill Levine

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Gerard Choucroun
Bill Levine
Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman