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Jewel
Spirit
(Atlantic)

In the current edition of Rolling Stone, journalist Neil Strauss tries to portray Jewel Kilcher, who appears on the issue's cover, as a far more complex personality than the one who seems to be behind her music--not a thimble-deep hippie chick who's peddling the hoariest of cliches, but a rapidly maturing Nabokov reader who sees optimism as "a choice" rather than an indication of guilelessness. Strauss undercuts this argument with an I-can't-believe-this-hottie-is-talking-to-me tone that reaches an unbelievably embarrassing apogee when he pantingly describes an intimate conversation between the two of them that took place while they were in bed together, with only a pillow separating them. (No, they didn't have sex--but I bet they do so regularly in Strauss's fantasies.) Nevertheless, most of Kilcher's quotes were intelligent enough to convince me that I should temporarily suspend my disbelief and approach her latest disc with an open mind. But then I made a horrendous error: I actually listened to it.

Those who loved Kilcher's debut disc, Pieces of You, and A Night Without Armor, a book of "intimate poetry" that inexplicably became a bestseller, will likely be entranced by Spirit. But anyone hoping to find evidence that Jewel has extended her reach (a claim she makes throughout the Strauss piece) would be better off exploring the theological wisdom of Reggie White. Patrick Leonard, a Madonna associate, adds a few ornate production touches here and there, but for the most part, he's content to leave Kilcher's pop-folk ditties to stand or fall on their own strength. Musically, that's not a bad strategy, at least from a commercial standpoint: Jewel has a way with hackneyed hooks, and she uses her warm, clear voice to sell them without embarrassment. But her lyrics are more insufferable than ever due to her vigorous humorlessness and her insistence upon trying to pass off refrigerator rhymes as profound insights.

"Deep Water," the opening track, is imbued with both of these characteristics. Several phrases (such as "And you wake up making love to a wall") seem downright funny in print, but her pristine delivery sure as hell isn't. Worse, the whole track builds to the lines "Well it's these little times that help to remind/It's nothing without love"--an observation that's not exactly as fresh as the dirty old uncle at your last family reunion. The tunes that follow stay true to this formula: "What's Simple Is True" tops its stereotypical title with the sentence "Old man winter, be our friend," while "Hands" observes, "In the end, only kindness matters," and "Life Uncommon" urges the boys and girls of the world to "fill your lives with love and bravery/And we shall lead a life uncommon." Such bumper-sticker philosophizing becomes even more numbing because of Jewel's disinterest in varying her imagery. Two songs after "Kiss the Flame," she mourns for "these fragile flames" in "Innocence Maintained"--and two tunes after that, she uses the same phrase again on the soupy "Fat Boy," so blatant a ripoff of Rickie Lee Jones's style (not to mention Randy Newman's infinitely superior "Davy the Fat Boy") that she probably wore a beret while singing it.

Capping the proceedings is "Absence of Fear," another stereotype-fest in which Kilcher claims, "I am needing you here/I need you near/Inside the absence of fear." Such declarations will undoubtedly ring true to insecure teenagers as likely to get a date as they are to assassinate Fidel Castro, but they're no less empty for all that. I found Spirit haunting only because I expect to hear it in my nightmares.

--Michael Roberts

Doc & Merle Watson
Home Sweet Home
(Sugar Hill)

Historic importance aside, this first-ever pairing of mountain balladeer and guitar whiz Doc Watson and his banjo-playing son Merle could've been a disaster. After all, the fourteen songs that make up Home Sweet Home began life as 1967-vintage home recordings originally labeled "Merle, banjo, 5 months" to indicate how long the younger Watson had been playing his instrument of choice at the time. Producer/bassist T. Michael Coleman, who discovered the tapes earlier this year, subsequently received Doc's blessing to add new musical backing to the tracks à la horrid posthumous collaborations by Nat and Natalie Cole and Hank Williams Sr. and Jr.

The results, though, are anything but abominable. Rather, Home Sweet Home careens and swings like the Watsons' finest collaborative efforts thanks in part to contributions from some of the hottest pickers in contemporary bluegrass. Coleman, who contributes minimal bass accompaniment, is here, of course, but so is fiddle ace Sam Bush, harmony vocalist Alan O'Bryant and Marty Stuart, who was playing hot-shit mandolin long before his Eighties move to straight honky-tonk. It also helps that the songs Doc and Merle tore into that day more than three decades ago were pulled from the bedrock of the country/ bluegrass legacy--which is to say, the legacy of Doc Watson. Versions of "Little Maggie," "John Henry," "Down the Road," "Worried Blues" and "Big Spike Hammer" are among the classics surveyed.

Though it's hard not to wonder what the original tapes sound like (a nice touch from Sugar Hill would have been to append them to the end of the disc), the after-the-fact flourishes by Coleman et al. actually amplify the unbridled spirit of the session, fleshing out Doc's astonishing singing and playing and Merle's prodigious banjo skills. And unlike, say, drummer Denardo Coleman, who sounded merely like a gifted beginner when he debuted on his pop Ornette's 1966 album The Empty Foxhole, Merle's work here is graceful and nuanced, already showing the traces of genius that would snap into clear focus over the course of the Seventies.

--John Floyd

The Slackers
The Question
(Hellcat)

Many of the newer ska bands ignore the elegant horn lines, shuffling backbeats and rich sound found in the genre's Jamaican roots--but there are exceptions. Like Hepcat, New York's Slackers have not lost touch with the music's past. The songs that make up The Question display a studied authenticity: "No More Crying" includes an old-school saxophone solo, the title track is distinguished by a wholehearted attempt at classic harmony singing, and "Feed My Girl" makes a reference to "sufferation." It's no surprise, then, that the album is dedicated to Tommy McCook, founder of the Skatalites.

The Slackers aren't merely channeling ska bands of yore, however. Victor Ruggiero's rugged vocals have more in common with Dicky Barrett's than they do with any graduates of Treasure Isle or Studio One, and songs like the exuberant "Motor City" and the quirky, oddball "Mummy" nod to styles beyond ska; calypso and the sounds of Harlem and New Orleans receive their due as well. Still, the Slackers nail the playful, uplifting spirit that's marked ska since its inception. If that's The Question, my answer is "yes."

--Joshua Green

Cash Money
Halos of Smoke and Fire
(Touch and Go)

Read the liner notes for this sophomore offering by Chicago's favorite blooze-slop duo and you'll find a handy little disclaimer: "In an Effort to dissuade ever-present critical ears from making misguided comparisons to contemporary artists, CASH MONEY gratefully acknowledge and tip their hats to the works of Johnny Cash, Freddie King, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and Elvis Presley. Any other incidental or accidental hat-tipping is purely coincidental and thereby unintentional."

Roughly translated, that means "Quit comparing us to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion." But this observation, however misguided it may be, has at least some basis in fact. John Humphrey and Scott Giampino take great pleasure in respectfully disrespecting country and blues traditions, and like the Explosion, they don't use a bass player while fucking up songs with jerky chord changes, static-charged vocals and flinching beats. But whereas Spencer and his posse tend to revel in generic, stereotypical soul shtick, the Cash Money pair sound as if they actually listen to their influences now and then. On "El Toro" and "Flight of the Greyhound Bus," for example, Humphrey captures Jimmy Page's subtle hard-rock brilliance far better than Page has in recent years, and "Drowning Boat" is downright rootsy--in a sweaty, white-city-boy sort of way.

"Mask of Amontiago," an experimental violin/guitar jam that at its best resembles a poor man's Dirty Three and at its worst a shitty punk-rock folk jig, is a clinker, but the rest of the recording plays just fine. It may sound a lot like the work of Railroad Jerk, Bantam Rooster, the Delta 72 and the aforementioned Mr. Spencer, but that's not such a bad thing--no matter which way you tip your hat.

--Brad Jones

Lisa Germano
Slide
(4AD)

Germano is perfectly suited to 4AD's brand of elegant gloom. For more than eight years, the Midwestern singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has refined her intriguing habit of exploring both her own misery and her pathos for the second person. Unlike many of her contemporaries, though, Germano has avoided that annoying fingernails-on-the-chalkboard-of-naivete effect. Indeed, Slide, her fifth album, may be her most accessible recording to date--depending on one's definition of accessibility, that is.

On the disc, Germano largely dispenses with the searing guitars that propelled Happiness, and her vocal suspirations are much less aggressive and desperate than, for example, the emotional armageddon found on Geek the Girl. But while this makeover yields a more subtle recording, Slide isn't necessarily a feel-good set. The bpm meter barely reads a pulse, and the logy tempos push Germano's fine-grained whisper of a voice to the fore on tracks that find her veering between abstract lyricism and forthright autobiographical narrative. On "No Color Here," her optimism comes across as something salvaged, not solid ("All my mistakes woven in a rug/Black and blue and dusty/Is there a beauty there?"), and "Turning Into Betty" allows her to muse that sweet, simple Mom may have been right. Elsewhere, she hints that cynicism might work better as rhetorical strategy than guiding emotion. The heavy "Tomorrowing" is a far cry from standard-issue pop, but it still manages to avoid nihilistic dead ends.

Germano's use of what amounts to a group of studio musicians as accompanists doesn't prevent Slide from emerging as an intensely personal expression filled with layers of odd keyboards, effected guitars, reserved percussion, languid bass and seemingly found sounds. It must seem to her that she'll never live down the notoriety resulting from her stint as John Cougar's fiddle player. But a few more lush, powerful albums like Slide should do the trick.

--Thomas Peake

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