Consumer Guide

CHRIS SMITHER: Drive You Home Again (HighTone) Between his somnolent baritone, his blurred melodies, and his big easy guitar, Smither does fade into the background— hear him at a distance and you'd never suspect he was a moral philosopher. But in fact he is that even rarer thing, a moral philosopher with good values, and his seventh album is where his songwriting takes over a career marked by killer covers. From the title manifesto— "These are not petty pleasures/It's a dance that slowly glides/In very complicated measures/That can't be simplified"— to "Tell Me Why You Love Me," he thinks on his butt while keeping the beat with his foot. He's worth attending even if you think blues are history. A Minus

WACO BROTHERS: WacoWorld (Bloodshot) The more you listen to Jon Langford— or see him live, where he'll spout wisecracks for hours— the more impressive his verbal facility seems. But Deano is an equal partner in this particular metaphor system, which defines country music as the great lost conduit of white male working-class desperation. Langford tends toward the grimly matter-of-fact: "That's why they're called bars, 'cos they keep me inside." "But I'll paint myself back out/Of this corner everytime." Deano is more visionary, as in "Pigsville," where you wake up next to your own chalk outline, or "Hello to Everybody," where aliens abduct you to "a warmer planet/Where there is no consequence." Both sing so lustily that the band's indifference to the niceties of country as it exists in history is of no consequence. When the milder-voiced mandolinist Mr. Tracey Dear takes the mike, however, the illusion pales. A Minus

TOM WAITS: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (Island) Whereas my favorite moments on Waits's many inconsistent albums— the pop parody-throwaway "I'll Shoot the Moon," the rawly elegant "All Stripped Down"— avoid the American grotesquerie he's overrated for, these 23 self-selections do not. As your designated bean counter I note that 10 of them come from Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, which hold up as totalities. Yet even when I program around those 10, this also holds up as a totality, persuading me that the main reason Waits is overrated is that he's never given up on himself. Over more years than most reprobates have in them he's covered more ground than most boho-lowlife shtick has room for— in a cockeyed, wildly varied body of songs that find form in a music nobody dares call lounge-rock because Kurt Weill and Leadbelly will come back and feed them to the fishes if they do. This is a sound with no interest whatsoever in glamour, even as something to make fun of. When it meshes, who can niggle about the literary and vocal affectations of such a hell of a bandleader? A Minus

Pick Hit: Mandy Barnett
Pick Hit: Mandy Barnett

TOM WAITS: Mule Variations (Epitaph) Between 1985 and 1993 Waits managed to seem prolific while generating exactly one album that wasn't tied to a film or theater piece. Between 1993 and 1998 he managed to remain mythic while generating occasional occasional songs and a rumor that he'd split with his wife. So it's a pleasure to report that his best record since Swordfishtrombones has Ms. Kathleen Brennan all over it, which he's proud to testify is why it's also his kindest record ever: "She puts the heart into all the things. She's my true love." Together they humanize the percussion-battered Bone Machine sound, reconstituting his '80s alienation effects into a Delta harshness with more give to it— enough to accommodate a tenderness that's never soft. Sure "Eyeball Kid" is a sick joke about a freak show; sure "Big in Japan" is a send-up about a failure; and sure it's a good thing they're there. But by the blues-drenched reconciliation hymn "Come On Up to the House," he knows how lucky he is: "Come down off the cross/We can use the wood/Come on up to the house." A Minus

KELLY WILLIS: What I Deserve (Rykodisc) Still has that enormous voice. Still has big-time man problems. Still tries too hard to feel. Will never reveal how scared she is inside. Will never sweep all before her. Still tries to do the right thing. Still sounds better the closer you listen. Still has that enormous voice. B Plus

Dud of the Month:

B*WITCHED (Epic) In teen pop as in world music, Gaelic signifies untouched by the tarbrush— Van Morrison, Phil Lynott, and The Commitments notwithstanding. And despite the saucy bits in "C'est La Vie" (first a "You show me yours," then an "I'll blow you [away]"!), this bid to whiten the Spice Girls is so clean you'll be hard-pressed to remember it's there— unless, like me, you get sick to your stomach at Uilleann hooks, mid-Atlantic brogues, and Enya lite. The obligatory rhythmic recitation, yclept "Freak Out" and declared "too hot for hip hop," has less bottom than Audrey Hepburn and is over in two minutes. "Like the Rose," unfortunately, takes four. C Minus

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

Bottle Rockets, Leftovers (Doolittle): honky-tonk romance, laborious dirge, and caffeinated double-time the quality outtakes you'd expect, dining-car praise song and Chattanooga chantey the lost oddities you'd hope ("Dinner Train to Dutchtown," "Coffee Monkey"); Jon Langford, Gravestone EP (Bloodshot): two enduring rerecorded highlights, one fine recycled obscurity, one excellent new song, mail-order only ("Nashville Radio," "The Return of the Golden Guitarist"); TLC, Fan Mail (LaFace): just like you they are lonely too ("Silly Ho," "Unpretty"); Corey Harris, Greens From the Garden (Alligator): the best thing he can do for his roots is grow new songs from them ("Honeysuckle," "Basehead," "Teabag Blues"); The Okra All-Stars (Innerstate): any friend of Jeb Loy Nichols is a friend of country music— especially Ricky Barnes ("Big Mistake," "Shade Tree Fix-It Man"); Built To Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.): like grunge never unhappened ("You Were Right," "Center of the Universe"); Bloque (Luaka Bop): world-beat en español ("Daño en al Baño," "Majaná"); Pearl Jam, Live on Two Legs (Epic): know more Mr. Nice Guy ("Given To Fly," "F*ckin' Up"); Real: The Tom T. Hall Project (Sire/Delmore/Kickstand): many titles skipped by the gemlike Essential Tom T. Hall and the softer two-CD box, but that doesn't mean Johnny Polonsky and Ron Sexsmith are up to them (Iris DeMent, "I Miss a Lot of Trains"; Kelly Willis, "That's How I Got to Memphis"); Total, Kima, Keisha & Pam (Bad Boy): bad girls ("Do Something," "There Will Be No #!*@ Tonight"); Mase Presents Harlem World, The Movement (All Out/So So Def): can't stand the way he fronts but I love to hear him talk ("Crew of the Year," "We Both Frontin' "); Wilco, Summer Teeth (Reprise): old-fashioned tunecraft lacking not pedal steel, who cares, but the concreteness modern popcraft eschews ("Summer Teeth," "She's a Jar"); Robbie Fulks, Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen): "For a life of devotion the death blow He deals/We owe Him only hatred, but God isn't real" ("God Isn't Real," "Pretty Little Poison"); Unkle, Psyence Fiction (Mo Wax/London): not beautiful (or weird) enough for its own beats ("Celestial Annihilation," "Guns Blazing [Drums of Death Part 1]"); Alejandro Escovedo, Bourbonitis Blues (Bloodshot): No Depression's "Artist of the Decade" (it says here) gets help he needs from the Wacos, Ian Hunter, and the unsinkable "Pale Blue Eyes" ("I Was Drunk," "Pale Blue Eyes"); Britney Spears, ...Baby One More Time (Jive): Madonna next door ("...Baby One More Time," "Soda Pop").

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