Dwight Yoakam

Always a two-step ahead of expectations, Dwight Yoakam can nose out the faint odor of critical backlash from a mile away, covering his tracks with fresh methods before critics can catch their breath to comprehend his next move. In this case, the move at issue is Gone, Yoakam's cozy answer to the platinum sheen of 1993's This Time. A Grammy winner, and deservingly so, This Time was the closest to the Wal-mart racks Yoakam's Buck Owens-birthed country has come. A more understated affair, Gone trots along on the reserve of enthusiasm left unused by its predecessor's overworked arrangements.

Like most everything Yoakam has done since 1988's Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room, Gone is rife with the laments of a loner who feels the pull of the pavement but can't quite shake the memories of those he's left behind. On that rare occasion when Yoakam does lighten the load, it's to poke fun at himself, as in the breezy shuffle "Sorry You Asked?" where he rambles on and on to a weary acquaintance about a recent breakup. The song fades out, and he's still yakking. Gone tosses the occasional curve -- a few soulful numbers with horns, a mariachi trumpet in "Sorry You Asked?" and Yoakam's best Buddy Holly impersonation yet on "Near You." Still, the prevailing attitude is so easygoing and aw-shucks humble that you forget Yoakam may have put some thought into this stuff. Think of Gone as a mobile home next to This Time's sleek high-rise condo -- but no less accommodating for its modest appearance.

-- Hobart Rowland

Moses Kahumoku
Ho'okupu "The Gift"
Barney Isaacs and George Kuo
Hawaiian Touch
Dancing Cat Records

It's a painful memory even now: every time my parents went somewhere fun, they'd drop me off with a goofy spinster aunt who loved watching Don Ho on TV and talking about the Hawaiian vacation that she'd take one of these day. That trauma left such a scar on my psyche that I'd rather have had recreational surgery than listen to Hawaiian folk guitar.

But now comes Dancing Cat Records to shame me, and remind me that writing off Hawaiian music because of Don Ho is akin to refusing to listen to anything from the mainland because of Barry Manilow. Dancing Cat Records' unabashed mission is preserving the unique "slack key" style that developed on the islands after Mexican vaqueros brought the guitar to Hawaii in the 1830s. The liner notes tell us that Hawaiian songs are written as gifts to other musicians, and Dancing Cat even gives detailed, song-by-song tuning instructions, an obvious invitation to take these songs and have fun with them.

Slack key involves loosening the top strings of the guitar for greater resonance, so that the bass lines can be thumb-picked while the fingers find the melody. It's the same basic idea as the swamp boogie style of southern Louisiana, where the vocalist/second guitarist plays a heavy rhythm behind the lead. Hawaiian slack key, though, is a bit more complex, featuring instrumental tunes where one player carries lead and rhythm simultaneously in a hypnotic, jazzy style. Another characteristic shared by these two home-grown schools of guitar is that, like most folk music, the climate of their origins seems to have crept into the melodies. When Moses Kahumoku picks out a tribute to his favorite meditation spot with "Ka'aha Point" on Ho'okupu "The Gift," you're there with the birds and palms and gently crashing surf.

The other indigenous Hawaiian stringed innovation is the acoustic steel guitar, developed a half-century or so after the discovery of slack key. The combination of metal resonators set in the body and a metal bar slid down the frets while the strings are triple-picked results in breezy, gliding tones more reminiscent of a vintage concert marimba than a stringed instrument. Hawaiian Touch purports to be "the first-ever recording of pure acoustic steel and slack key guitar duets," which makes it as historically important as it is just pure fun. Alvin Kalanikau Isaacs Jr. is a seventysomething second-generation steel guitarist, and when he lays that steel in his lap and gets down with Barney Kuo, a talented young slack-key virtuoso, it's hard not to smile. This is the music Hawaiians play for each other, not for tourists. Hawaiian Touch collects traditional folk songs, waltzes and compositions for an hourlong front-porch visit out of sight and mind of high-rise tourist hotels.

-- Jim Sherman

Original Soundtracks 1

U2 should be celebrated for doing what few major rock bands have managed: they broke the chains of their own stardom. For a while it looked like they'd carry the "monsters of rock" banner into the same institutionalized old age where bands such as the Who and Pink Floyd landed long ago. But with Achtung Baby -- and even more so, Zooropa -- U2 made it clear they hadn't become so alienated from artistic motivation that they believed more in their own importance than in their continued ability to create. Thus, they stopped waving flags and learned to laugh at their fame. The change released U2 from its own image and allowed the band more creative elbow-room than ever before. Only in this context could U2 adopt the pseudonym "Passengers," allow producer Brian Eno to assume virtual membership in the band and immerse themselves in the anonymity of film music.

With Original Soundtracks 1, a collection of 14 compositions for independent movies (and one performance piece), U2 takes on the new challenge of interpreting the moods, themes and textures of the visual medium into music. Eno, who's done this sort of thing for decades, plays a defining role. Tracks such as "United Colours" and "One Minute Warning," with their electronic pulsations and organic atmospherics, clearly fall onto his ambient/techno terrain. Even tracks more recognizably U2's are enriched by collaboration: the hilarious "Elvis Ate America" is even more absurd with Howie B's scratching and vocal calls, and the touching "Miss Sarajevo" is made infinitely more profound by Luciano Pavarotti's tenor. Passengers is more likely an inspired tangent than an indication of U2's direction, but it adds to the band's impressive -- and constantly progressive -- body of work.

-- Roni Sarig

Ann Magnuson
The Luv Show

Ann Magnuson is a singer, songwriter, performance artist, journalist, and TV and movie actress, and she likes to get naked. She's naked in a drawing on the CD cover, naked in gauze on the back and naked with a guitar on the sleeve foldout. It's part of her shtick -- small-town girl seeks big-time dreams in Hollywood -- and the shtick's screenplay is The Luv Show, a concept album that's also the soundtrack to a movie that's been filmed a thousand times.

Magnuson's been circling this project for years with one-woman shows, spoken word performances and four albums as one-half of Bongwater, and it's a thing of exquisite beauty. Magnuson's plot flits her back and forth between cock rock ("Miss Pussy Pants") and cocktail schmaltz ("Sex with the Devil"), operatic trills ("I Remember You") and spoken monologues ("Man with No Face"), and she handles the curves with the grace of a natural born child of the cabaret. Producer Don Fleming does an extraordinary job maintaining the flow of a big, goofy, bombastic, nudge-and-a-wink sound, and a huge cast of New York and L.A. musicians peg the essence of every episodic tune, whether it's the surf rock of "It's a Great Feeling" or the Zeppelinesque folk of "Dead Moth."

What holds it all together as much as the production, though, is Magnuson's completely screwed-up sensibility. She's a satirist, sure, and a mystic, a careerist bitch, a good person making bad decisions, a swinger and a vengeful ex with a knife. As a storyteller, she's pretty well anyone she feels like being, and if she looks -- from the neck up anyway -- like Shirley MacLaine's spitting image, maybe that makes some sort of multiple personality sense. Hell, she even squeezes in an L7-meets-Quarterflash stomp and calls it "Manipulative Kennedy-esque Celebrity Fucker," which, you may have noticed, not just anyone can convincingly do. Magnuson is an exhibitionist of the first order, and if her charming body makes for an attractive package, the tweaked-out brain of the disc is where the action is.

-- Brad Tyer

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Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman
Brad Tyer