Alt Lives!!

Sarge
Distant
(Mud)
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The indie circuit's no life for a girl who's been accepted at law school and wants the kind of relationships that are wrecked by the separations her lyrics dissect. So after four years, Elizabeth Elmore broke up a band that contained no other original members, and this is their testament: three new Elmore songs that could break your heart waiting for more, three goofy covers, two sketchy closers, and a patched-together club set of six songs, five of which sound brighter on 1998's The Glass Intact. Overall, for fans and collectors, I guess—only I'm not so sure this isn't the one I'll play. My favorite moment is on the live solo-acoustic "The First Morning," where dimmer doesn't mean less affecting. "Bye guys—miss you," she offers after the cheers, and comes this close to sobbing, wondering how she'll do without the only relationship the road is good for. A MINUS

Taraf De HaÏdouks
(Nonesuch)
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Look, I got no use for Gypsy music, nor for the Balkan stuff to which it is geographically related. Gypsy's too demonstrative in its passion and longing, and as for Balkan, I've tried and failed and gone on with my life. So here's Band of Brigands, three generations of lautarifrom southwestern Romania it says in the notes, the elders not above improvising about the fall of Ceausescu, the young ones imbued with the old ways even if they love the music of the cities where they dream of performing—and where they now enjoy a presence, this being a best-of from three albums on a Belgian label. I love the tongue-twisting "Dumbala Dumba," the deep cellar-door creak of "Rustem" 's large cymbalum, and the heartbroke melody of "Sabarelu," which seems to be about rivers. I dunno, maybe the other guys work up that floridity for the tourist trade. Or maybe this is a special band— fast, intense, tuneful, yet always frayed around the edges. A MINUS


Pick Hits

Lou Reed
Ecstasy
(Reprise)
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Despite a few bloopers, including a love-equals-time metaphor he worked out for a Robert Wilson thingy, this is the album we hoped he'd make the first time we heard The Blue Mask—one of them, anyway. Disillusioned yet again to discover that the object of his affections is almost as fucked up as he is, Reed returns to the scene of his Oedipus complex while Roto-rooting the internal contradictions of enduring romance from every angle he can think of. But there's more regret than rage, and no sense of finality, as if he's been through too much to stay mean. And note that his relationships endure, including the one with Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders, and Tony Smith, now the longest-running band of his roving career. With Lou's guitar firmly at the helm, they impart something like tragic beauty not just to intended soul-shakers like "Ecstasy" and the 18-minute "Possum," but to the existentialist joke "The Modern Dance" and the cheater's diatribe "Mad"—which I call the most original song on the record even if Reed prefers the one about the white slave and the black master. A

The Handsome Family
In the Air
(Carrot Top)
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The reason these alt-country cult heroes stir up so much humbug is that they do sometimes strike the great elusive motherlode of American tragic deadpan. When Rennie Sparks's lyrics don't settle for "dark," or Brett Sparks's music for lo-fi dirge, they can be miraculous. Next time you're in Dublin, be sure to pick up the Ireland-only '90 best-of Down in the Valley, on Independent. And in the meantime believe that their fourth and best album is almost as good. Of course Brett's no Acuff or Haggard; his static baritone barely negotiates the notes. But as the quietly elaborate direct-to-Mac arrangements swell unassumingly beneath haunting verses and the occasional killer refrain, Rennie's conceits hit home. "I shouldn't have smuggled in that bottle of gin because after the film I could hardly walk"? "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with a Styrofoam box and two broken oars"? If that's not real life, it certainly stands as symbolic truth. A MINUS


Dud of the Month

La Bottine Souriante
Rock & Reel
(Hemisphere)
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Winking whenever the folk do something cute (or dirty), wearing an I [Heart] Jazz button on their collective sleeve, this accordion-fiddle-horns nonet epitomizes the cloying multicultural sophistication that infests "world music." I'd hoped they were French, but in fact they're Québecois, which makes sense—the Breton-Celt connection. Austin's Brave Combo prove it's possible to make "fun" fun. Bilbao's Kepa Junkera proves it's possible to keep eclecticism clean. This kind of stuff gives purism a good name. C PLUS


Additional Consumer News

HONORABLE MENTION: Marianne Faithfull, Vagabond Ways(Instinct): a ravaged old hippie's bitterest laments ("Vagabond Ways," "Incarceration of a Flower Child"); The Fall, The Marshall Suite(Artful import): alt-rock won't die till they ban Pignose amps in Mark E.'s senior residence, but that doesn't mean he'll put this much into it ("F-'Oldin' Money," "Touch Sensitive"); Wheat, Hope and Adams(Sugar Free): falling-apart love songs for a broken world ("Body Talk [Part 2]," "Slow Fade"); Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, No Old Guy Lo-Fi Cry(Rockathon): he's always better when you listen to the words, and he's not making it any easier ("Internet Is Just Bad Pot," "Hell"); Burn Barrel, Reviled! (Heathen): neorealism Columbus style—via Far Rockaway, but Winesburg is proud anyway ("Scratch," "Mrs. Tubbs"); Issa Bagayogo, Sya(Cobalt import): Mali's great circle, described with the help of a drum machine ("Sya," "Gnangran"); Lobi Traoré, Duga(Cobalt import): Mali's great circle, described with the help of some French blues harmonica ("Sogow," "Wolodennu," "Lala"); Lyle Lovett, Live in Texas(Curb/MCA): entertaining to the converted ("Here I Am," "I've Been to Memphis"); Septeto Nacional & Guests, Mas Cuba Libres(Network import): high-generic son, pretty much like you-know-who, except I'll take rough-voiced eightysomething Pío Leva over Compay Segundo or Enrico Ferrer ("Oye Como Sena," "Llore Como Llore"); the Negro Problem, Joys & Concerns(Aerial Flipout): prefer XTC to Love and love to ecstasy ("Come Down Now," "Mahnsanto"); 'N Sync, No Strings Attached(Jive): the beats their statement, the ballads their way of life ("I Thought She Knew," "It Makes Me Ill"); Crooked Fingers(Warm): Eric Bachmann describes degradation as if he wants you to avoid it like a plague ("Broken Man," "She Spread Her Legs and Flew Away"); The Black Heart Procession(Up): three clattering dissonant songs (or tracks) establishing their right to record yet more clattering dissonant songs (or tracks)—not that anything could stop them ("Song About a . . . ," "A Truth Quietly Told").

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