Richard Thompson
Mirror Blue

What a bizarre fix Richard Thompson is in. This extraordinary guitarist, vocalist and songwriter has released outstanding discs since his Sixties stint with Fairport Convention; likely no other popular-music artist performing during the same period has produced so undeniably consistent a body of work. Sure, some of his albums--Pour Down Like Silver and Shoot Out the Lights, recorded with then-wife Linda, and solo albums such as Hand of Kindness and Across a Crowded Room--are better than others. Brilliant, in fact. But even Thompson's lesser efforts have been worthy of respect and have garnered critical notices so bursting with positives that they sometimes border on satire. In spite of their attributes, however, few Thompson recordings have sold more than modestly, and aside from his rabid cult of followers, the general public has shown little inclination to clasp poor Richard to its collective bosom no matter how many raves he collects. So what's a musician to do? In Thompson's case, he has chosen to release this, another fine album--not his best (the sound achieved by producer Mitchell Froom is a bit slack in places), but a thoroughly solid offering highlighted by "I Can't Wake Up to Save My Life," a biting, funny dose of vitriol, and "For the Sake of Mary," an epic ballad as gorgeous and heartbreaking as any he has penned. And it won't be a smash. No, the same handful of people who always buy Thompson platters will buy this one, and they'll try to convince their friends to purchase a copy for themselves, to no avail. As for reviewers, they will spin their free copies, pen their perfunctory compliments and move on to the next big thing, leaving Thompson to twist in the wind again. Hell, maybe the only way for Thompson to get the attention he deserves is to break with tradition and put out a really terrible record, so that the one that follows will seem even better by comparison. After all, he's living proof that in the unfair world of music, simply being good isn't necessarily enough.--Michael Roberts

Gary Thomas
Exile's Gate

Progressive saxophonist Thomas is among the more creative and adventurous younger players on the current scene. His previous releases, By Any Means Necessary and Till We Have Faces, were invigorating albums that found him refusing to remain within the borders of postbop, funk, standard jazz or urban blues. On Exile's Gate, the vitality and zestfulness of the bandleader's approach add spice to this swinging, swirling, driving and complex collection--a collection made more distinctive because everything from basic rhythmic work to collective improvisation is held together by the sinewy sonic thread produced by the Hammond B-3, handled here by either Charles Covington or Tim Murphy. An added bonus: Drummer Jack DeJohnette's edgy groovework is heard on three tunes. The finest of these, "A Brilliant Madness," sports a title that applies to all of Thomas's work.--Linda Gruno

Uncle Tupelo

Supporters of these Illinois country-punkers always seem to avoid mentioning that they sound an awful lot like Seventies stalwarts the Eagles and Jackson Browne. And who can blame them? Nobody wants their favorite band to be associated with cocaine-addled California hairballs. Still, the comparison remains apt. For example, "Slate" finds the Uncles tickling rich harmonies with steady beats and countrified instrumentation (including pedal steel guitar, fiddle and banjo) that recall Browne's For Everyman, and the folky chorus of "Give Back the Key to My Heart" wouldn't sound out of place on Desperado. And that's not as bad as it might seem. Browne and the Eagles actually had their moments--and in a time when everybody and their pierced-nosed mother is stealing riffs from Neil Young and Black Sabbath, it only makes sense that an act would try to fill the country-rock void left by Don Henley and company. Fortunately for us, Uncle Tupelo does it better than anyone.--Brad Jones

ZZ Top

These guys have been making the same album since the early Seventies, and they'll be making the same album long after most of us are dead. This time the album is called Antenna. Next time it will be called something else. But it's still the same album.--Roberts


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