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Ralph Carney, Charlie Haden Quartet West, Enemymine, Styx

Ralph Carney
I Like You (a Lot)
(Akron Cracker/Birdman Records)

It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Carney, who's best known for having provided savory idiosyncrasies to Tom Waits albums (some of which also featured recent Westword profile subject Mark Ribot), is a relatively young guy. After all, his grasp of virtually every strain of American music seems damn near encyclopedic. But rather than share his knowledge in a pedantic way, turning it into a turgid lesson that needs to be memorized by rote, he infuses his work with absurdism that's intelligent and infantile at the same time. He's like an avant-garde Spike Jones, making alternately charming and rude noises for the sheer joy of it.

Like Ribot, Carney's not much of a singer, but he makes up for his deficiencies in the pipes department with a deadpan delivery in which humor serves as the hidden filling. "I Like You" is a case in point. Its first section consists primarily of lyrical variations on its title ("I really like you/I really do") set to a tumbling, carnival-like melody. Then, after a minute or so, Carney breaks the mood with an obscure bridge that finds him rumbling and grumbling over a moaning organ. But after suddenly announcing that he's gotten his "shit together," he happily returns to his peppy announcements of affection, sounding all the merrier for having survived his sixty-second journey to the heart of darkness.

Consistent this ain't: "Fun House" is a shambling curio, "Chant of the Weed" suggests Charles Mingus at his sunniest, "Hawaiian Eye" incongruously pits Tarnations' Paula Frazer against a kazoo and a Jew's harp, and "Mile's Corner" offers a bowlful of Bitches Brew -- and that still leaves twelve cuts to go. Yet Carney's flirtations with oompah music ("Eye Protection"), Greek stylings ("Far Oud"), dirges ("Death Don't Come Easy") and post-modernist Dixieland ("Christopher Columbus") hold together because they're all of a piece. Carney, who plays most of the instruments heard here, is certainly a brainy boy, but he sees his music as fun, not work, and that distinction makes all the difference in the world. I Like You (a Lot)warps the good old days until they don't seem old at all. -- Michael Roberts

Charlie Haden Quartet West (with chamber orchestra)
The Art of the Song
(Verve)

The magisterial jazz bassist Charlie Haden is never afraid to spread his wings. As a child, he worked the Grand Ole Opry in his parents' country band. As an adult, he played with boppers like Art Pepper in the Sixties, the avant-gardians Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman in the Seventies and a wide variety of Latin and South American musicians ever since. He's improvised on classical monsters from Brahms to Mozart and founded the groundbreaking Liberation Music Orchestra. Always pressing ahead, our Charlie.

On "The Art of the Song," Haden and his impeccable Quartet West (pianist Alan Broadbent, tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, drummer Larance Marable) hook up with the great balladeer Shirley Horn and the underappreciated Chicago vocalist Bill Henderson to explore eight carefully chosen show tunes -- from Jerome Kern's familiar "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" to Michael Leonard's "Why Did I Choose You [276K aiff]." Horn brings another Kern evergreen, "In Love in Vain," her trademark smoky melancholy, and Henderson infuses the Jimmy Van Heusen/Mack Gordon favorite "You My Love" with a jolt of the blues. Best in show? Horn's heartbreaking rendition of Cy Coleman's " I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life [284K aiff]."

Haden's tasteful solo work is not much in evidence here. Instead he yields four songs to Horn, four to Henderson and the arrangements to pianist Broadbent. They all have the services of a modernist chamber orchestra led by violinist Murray Adler, and the backgrounds it provides for the singers are blessedly free of sticky sweetness. Adler's violin solo backing Horn's " Lonely Town" is as cool and bracing as a gin martini.

Trust Haden to work in some surprises. Among the four non-vocal tracks, there's a sumptuous study of "Prelude en la mineur" (1913), in which the quartet inverts and recirculates Ravel's figures with dazzling ease, and a pop-in visit with Rachmaninov featuring Watts's soaring tenor over a wonderfully oblique, jagged chorus of strings. Haden also sings a tune himself: It's "Wayfaring Stranger," a traditional circa 1800, and the bassist's light-textured, unassuming warble contrasts nicely with the dark romance of the chamber players. -- Bill Gallo

Enemymine
Enemymine
(K Records)

Punk. Noisemonger. Genius. Call Mike Kunka what you will, but you've got to admire the guy's moxie. As the better half of the bludgeoning, experimental sludge duo godheadSilo, this skinny, baby-faced North Dakotan not only penned some of the densest, most entertainingly grandiose dick rock to come down the pike since Wanowar's Fighting the World(how does "Dan Vs. Time" strike you as a song title?), but he managed to win his way into the hearts of sensitive indie-rock purists like Lou Barlow and Bratmobile's Erin Smith in the process. What's more, he accomplished it all with nothing more than a bass guitar, an ugly hodgepodge of effects pedals and a voice abrasive enough to snuff newborn kittens. Now Kunka is back with a new outfit, Enemymine, and judging from this brief though telling EP, his passion for extremes hasn't diminished a hair.

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