Easy Money

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons
(Almo Sounds)

First cut's the worst, which I blame not on Chrissie Hynde but on "She," the softest song Parsons ever wrote (and probably the only one about black people, too). Last cut's the best, and though "In My Hour of Darkness" is anything but soft, I credit it primarily to Victoria Williams and a gang that owes Parsons everything, from alt-country lifer Mark Olson to Nashville darling Jim Lauderdale to in-betweeners Buddy and Julie Miller. There are plenty of great songbooks with plenty of great admirers, but damn few that define a sensibility, and even Elvis Costello and Evan Dando seem to have pondered Parsons all their musical lives— though not as much as Aunt Emmylou, who shares recipes with Beck H. and Sheryl C. As for Gram's own kids, even the slow ones— parched Gillian Welch, sodden Whiskeytown, spaced Cowboy Junkies— designed their sounds for this material, which nails their identification-alienation harder than their own ever will. A MINUS

Spring Heel Jack
(Tugboat import)

Its U.S. release a casualty of the UniMoth merger, this colors in the techno-classical duo's sonic territory without putting any bells on it— except for the chimes and carillons that alternate with drunken brass sections, expensive faucets, and plain old synthesizers on the eight-minute "Winter," which breaks into tradder drum 'n' bass, which gives way to a scary soundtrack explosion. Et cetera. Tops is "More Stuff No One Saw," a rocky one. Its marchlike drum looping under a few phrases of noir saxophone, it crescendoes in grand faux brass-organ-triangle swells before scattering into the tail end of a gun battle. If you like these guys, you'll love it all. If you've never heard (of) them, there's no special reason to start here. A MINUS

The Andy Statman Quartet
The Hidden Light
(Sony Classical)

Oldtime klezmer often sounds more devotional than celebratory to those comfortable with machine-age tempos, and rather than being coy about this commercial inconvenience, the mandolin-master-turned-clarinet-pro embraces it. The bio's "spiritual jazz" IDs the result aptly enough, except that any Jew who feels like one will recognize its provenance at 50 paces, which helps explain how it avoids the New Age tinge you rightly fear. Those who don't feel like Jews will be impressed enough that something so solemn can be so light— and glad that Statman isn't above reprising traditional tunes or picking up his best axe. A MINUS

Trailer Bride
Whine de Lune

Melissa Swingle's "got two long arms, and they're as strong as they are thin," but the boxcars are locked. So if you don't let her work on the railroad she may just lay down on the tracks. Cursing snakes, crashing windshields, poking around for a minor chord, that's her way— depressed but determined, with just enough guitar, banjo, and mandolin to make something of it. Slack-jawed mountain dolor in the age of Valium— a hyperconsciously eerie tour de force. A MINUS

Hank Williams III
Risin' Outlaw

Unlike so many musical scions, he's got the equipment— songs he wrote, songs he didn't write, lonesome whine, pissed-off groove, rebel drawl, rebel attitude. But except when it comes to devil's daughters, he lacks the power to convince anyone that he's reinventing rather than reclaiming— that this is expression as well as art. "I plan on livin' long," he boasts, and that's something to brag about. But sometimes there's a cost. B PLUS

Pick Hit

The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs

Accusing Stephin Merritt of insincerity would be like accusing Cecil Taylor of playing too many notes— not only does it go without saying, it's what he's selling. I say if he'd lived all 69 songs himself he'd be dead already, and the only reality I'm sure they attest to is that he's very much alive. I dislike cynicism so much that I'm reluctant ever to link it to creative exuberance. But this cavalcade of witty ditties— one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical— upends my preconceptions the way high art's sposed to. The worst I can say is that its gender-fucking feels more wholehearted than its genre-fucking. Yet even the "jazz" and "punk" cuts are good for a few laughs— total losers are rare indeed. My favorite song from three teeming individually-purchasable-but-what-fun-would-that-be CDs: the entire "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure," who has the savoir faire to rhyme with "closure," "kosher," and "Dozier" before Merritt offs him. A PLUS

Dud of the Month

Joey Mcintyre
Stay the Same

After taking in Girls Against Boys' searing analysis of the culture-killing boypop scam in The Nation, which certainly needed the heads-up, I sought a class enemy to hit on, but the best I could do was this mildly annoying Old Kid. Featureless funk holds up an album that rode to gold on the back of the overstated title ballad. It's not even tripe— more in the line of twaddle, only less pretentious. Right, he should act his age like his ex-bandmate Jordan, and deserves the obscurity to which he will soon return. But in a world that contains George W. Bush, we're well advised to figure out at just what point bland feel-goodism becomes murder. B MINUS

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