Playlist

Mark Eitzel
West
(Warner Bros.)

Eitzel is one of those guys who could shoot the president and still not end up on the nation's front pages. He served as frontman for the American Music Club, but the act never achieved anything more than cult status in its eleven years of existence. All-but-universal praise from reviewers eventually led to a major-label deal for the combo, but Eitzel's perverse sense of timing ensured that this stroke of luck would not pay off: The band broke up in 1994, shortly after stepping beneath the Warner Bros. corporate umbrella. Not that stardom was within Eitzel's grasp--far from it. His work is, for the most part, so dour that only someone consumed with enmity and discontent (like, say, the average rock critic) would be apt to identify with it. Nonetheless, Eitzel is sticking to his guns. Despite the assistance of co-writer/co-producer Peter Buck, the musical support of the Buck side project Tuatara (which features the Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin and Critters Buggin's Skerik) and cameos by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, West is every bit as commercially suspect as anything Eitzel's ever made. "In Your Life," which Buck originally intended for his main band, R.E.M., is jaunty and jangly in precisely the ways you'd expect, but Eitzel undercuts these characteristics with strained vocals and words ("You have nothing left...you threw away your life") that are about as upbeat as a tax audit. Tracks like "Helium" (featuring a car "that only drives into walls") and "Stunned & Frozen" (in which Eitzel sings about the literal fall of a trapeze artist) are equally severe, and even a love song like "Free of Harm" comes wrapped in negativity (after declaring his loyalty to another, Eitzel admits to being "a little shallow"). But the singer's vision is so pure and unrelenting that it can't be ignored. The words to the concluding track, "Live or Die," are so typically glum--and therefore, typically Eitzel--that they verge on self-parody. But damned if the combination of Skerik's passionate saxophone, a roiling jazz rhythm and the sound of Eitzel moaning "No one cares/If I live or die" doesn't seem moving anyhow. West will never wind up on the hit parade, but in this case, that seems perfectly appropriate. For Eitzel, failure probably feels a lot more like home.

--Michael Roberts

Moby
Animal Rights
(Elektra)

Moby apparently believes that a big, loud set of guitars will add depth and urgency to his plaints, but he couldn't be further off base. Everything Is Wrong, from 1995, earned its eloquence thanks to the juxtaposition of his raw voice and grinding ax with the stately fugues and high-spirited dance tunes that otherwise dominated the disc. But on Animal Rights, Moby reverses this balance, and as a result, he comes across as priggish and overbearing, in part because he provides no evidence of the losses that have left him feeling so goldurn awful. The CD isn't bad musically or stupid lyrically; rather, it's poorly thought out and thoroughly unconvincing. Moby bellows as if he's trying to hawk all the mucus out of his larynx, but it's not enough. He just wants to rant all night long, and how deep is that? His ambient cuts are as dark and lovely as usual, and two of his rockers break out: "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," a Mission of Burma cover that's sung and arranged like more than one kind of hit, and the funky Living Colour ripoff "Come On Baby." As for the rest of Animal Rights, it's recommended to fans of the Mike Leigh flick Naked--perhaps the only people with the patience to sit through it.

--John Young

Roy Ayers and Fela Anikulapo Kuti
Music of Many Colours
(M.I.L. Multimedia/Esperanto Records)

Okay, so Ayers isn't the jazzman, lyricist or singer I'd have picked to work with this notoriously venomous Nigerian composer. But unlike Kenny G or Grover Washington or Herbie Mann, Ayers once created a memorable song: the 1977 disco favorite "Running Away," here rewritten as "2,000 Blacks Got to Be Free." Kuti's tenor sax, which he squeaks like he's working a rusty hinge back and forth, shades Ayers's vibraphone nicely, and his support group, Africa 70, makes disco sounds far more lush than those associated with the string synthesizers so ubiquitous in the genre. Moreover, the lyrics and Afro-beat grooves of "Africa--Centre of the World" suggest that Kuti will be leaving footprints on European asses way into the next millennium.

--Young

Abra Moore
Strangest Places
(Arista Austin/Bohemia Beat)

With every record company in existence trying to clone Joan Osborne, you'd think that it would be all but impossible for a singer-songwriter to stand out from the throng. But Moore, who's signed to Denverite Mark Shumate's Bohemia Beat imprint, manages to do so without the slightest effort. While her debut, Sing, displayed enough country-folk aspirations to get her lumped in with the sort of Austin-based talents who earn plaudits rather than money, Strangest Places is a sprightlier hybrid that joyfully slices genre boundaries to ribbons. The title cut is an excursion into pop psychedelia that would do Sam Phillips proud, but rather than following it up with something similar, Moore lilts into "Happiness," a weeper of a ballad whose chorus ("Happiness has come to this/And God, it's such a heavy burden to bear") seems utterly nonsensical until you actually hear it. Moore's voice makes such transitions possible: At times it seems as gentle as Suzanne Vega's, but when it's confronted with the big guitars of "Never Believe You Now," it holds up just fine. Her songwriting, meanwhile, is pleasantly adventurous. The melody of "Your Faithful Friend" could easily have turned nursery-rhyme simple in other hands, but in Moore's, it becomes gently insinuating and surprisingly rich. The consistent intelligence and allergy to formula that mark the disc suggest that Moore may have a tougher road ahead of her than some of her peers. But if Strangest Places is any indication, the journey will be well worth the trouble.

--Roberts

 
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