Rod Stewart
A Spanner in the Works
Warner Bros.

Rod Stewart is such a pain in the ass to review. The guy's a great talent. With that raspy and rich voice, Stewart can bend a lyric like few others. His songs, even the ones sappy enough to pour over pancakes, resonate with an unmistakable Scottish soul. But Stewart's career has been marked with the kind of restless, unfocused yearnings that scream out, "I NEED TO BE NOTICED!"

That need has had a regrettable side effect: Stewart allows himself to be manipulated by trends and producers and record companies. Just think of all the different Rods there have been over the years: Rod the Rocker, Rod the Storyteller, Rod the Mod, Rod the Bod (otherwise known as Disco Rod). Now Stewart is squarely in his Adult Contemporary Rod period. It's a byproduct of his hugely successful 1993 disc, Unplugged ... and Seated, not to mention the success of his squishy remake of Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You."

Stewart's latest album, A Spanner in the Works, is stuffed with songs guaranteed to make adult contemporary play lists across the nation. But the 12 songs here cannot be dismissed by such simple cynicism. Stewart, like he has done throughout his career, makes the most out of limited material.

Spanner's first two songs, "Windy Town" and "The Downtown Lights," are prime examples. The tunes themselves are by turns nostalgic and romantic in ways that wouldn't cause much fuss in a singer-songwriter forum. But Trevor Horn's lush, multilayered production -- and Anne Dudley's beautifully understated string arrangements -- combined with Stewart's exquisite phrasings make these songs ache and throb.

Stewart has great taste in cover material, and more often than not he puts his own stamp on these tunes. Spanner is no different. On it he covers Bob Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You" (he deftly handles Dylan's tricky phrasings), Sam Cooke's "Soothe Me" (which he turns into a sanitized Stones-like rocker) and Tom Waits' "Hang On St. Christopher" (Stewart understands the tune, but he simply isn't shadowy enough to tackle its dark aspirations).

The phrase "a spanner in the works" is apparently some British patois that means "an obstruction or hindrance." I don't profess to understand what Stewart means by the title, but perhaps he's referring to the struggle of growing up in a business that was originally designed to thumb its nose at the establishment. Now, Stewart is the establishment. That carries burdens we can't even begin to understand. Is Stewart admitting those burdens are an obstruction to his creative muse? If Spanner is his compromise, it's not a bad one.

-- Tim Carman

Little Charlie and the Nightcats
Straight Up!

Teddy Morgan and the Sevilles
Ridin' in Style

Visualize an old twin-propeller airliner thundering over the heartland, its aluminum shell stripped away and replaced with greasy-kid-stuff impregnated polyester (and a loud, tacky plaid at that). One engine cowling bears the legend "rockabilly," the other, "jump blues." Visualize Little Charlie and the Nightcats.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, a vintage Cadillac roars down a two-lane country road, its big V-8 pounding out an honest shuffle as the neck of an upright bass sticks out the window and tail fins cut through the night. It's Teddy Morgan and the Sevilles.

Both of these bands do that funky, sweaty, upright-bass, hollow-body Gibson boogie. The Nightcats do it Chicago style, and the Sevilles have a noticeable Gulf Coast thang about their particular roadhouse boogie. Both of these bands have enough in common that separate reviews of their latest releases -- Straight Up by Little Charlie and Ridin' in Style by the Sevilles -- would border on redundancy. These CDs are two solid pieces of evidence that seriously weird music is best achieved by taking your music -- not yourself -- seriously. If having fun is a sin, these guys are all gonna burn for a long, long time.

Guitars were meant to be slapped like a conga on occasion, a real bass guitar is taller than its player and a good song has lyrics that you can figure out while you're dancing. Oh yeah, and the front man should use more Sweet Georgia Brown Pomade than the rest of the band combined. That's the formula at work here, and the main difference between these offerings is that the Nightcats have been at it a lot longer and are a little more comfortable with projecting themselves as an unabashed party band. Rick Estrin writes catchy, funny lyrics that mesh smoothly with the band's self-propelled mystique. "I Can't Speak No Spanish No Hablo Espanol" would be a politically incorrect, flippant treatment of the problems facing a cross-cultural romance if anyone could stop dancing long enough to complain, while "You Gonna Lie" is sweet revenge for everyone ever trapped in a bar by a chronic bullshitter.

In the case of the Sevilles, in spite of being shy of the quarter-century mark and from Minneapolis, of all places, Morgan's debut establishes him as a member in good standing of the roadhouse jump-blues fraternity. His grafted Texas roots are accentuated on a half-dozen tunes by Fabulous Thunderbirds pianist Gene Taylor, while the rollicking "I'm Looped" -- where you don't even have to close your eyes to see Eric Mathew spinning his bass on its spike -- features the traditional Antone's horn section.

There's no real point in playing favorites here. When your next party gets to the point where the furniture is being shoved into the corners around the dance floor, either one will work just fine.

-- Jim Sherman

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Tim Carman
Jim Sherman