Elvis Costello
Brutal Youth
(Warner Bros.)

Of course you've read those interviews in which Mr. McManus has claimed that this reunion with his original band (the Attractions) and his original producer (Nick Lowe, here relegated to sideman status) was motivated by musical forces, not commercial ones. Still, there's no denying that his last two albums--the willfully inaccessible Mighty Like a Rose and the epic embarrassment The Juliet Letters--left him with all the marketability of, say, Sergeant Barry Sadler. This new recording will remedy the problem by appealing to Costello's core audience of aging new-wave graduates and pun-loving misanthropes--and it should, since his new songs are undeniably punchy and reassuring. Yet that's part of the problem: Tunes such as the single "13 Steps Lead Down," featuring an Elvis guitar solo that recalls "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace, Love and Understanding)," and "20% Amnesia" approximate the bite and bitterness that made Costello's early work so magnetic and individual, but without actually exhibiting any of these characteristics. Costello clearly is capable of self-mimicry of a very high order, but in spite of the clever lines and intricate pop craftsmanship on display throughout Brutal Youth, he can't disguise the fact that he simply isn't that angry anymore. I don't want to wish misery on you, sir, but you were a lot more interesting when you were unhappy.--Michael Roberts

The Connells

Listening to Ring, the Connells' fifth album, you get the feeling that brothers David and Mike Connell spent a lot of time penning songs together on the front porch of their parents' rural Georgia home: These thirteen tracks glow with the sort of serene country charm associated with clean air, rolling hills and green fields. For example, "Slackjawed," the record's first single, features textures and harmonies that bring to mind such postpunk acts as the La's and the Three O'Clock, yet it glows with the kind of poignant depth and feeling that make you want to sit down and actually listen to the lyrics. Likewise, the sober tones of "Spiral," an acoustic ballad about loneliness and longing ("There's a ceiling light above me/And a space it cannot fill/And it's bearing down upon me/Holding me still"), has the timeless feel of a Simon and Garfunkel song minus the pretension. Given the Connells' intelligent pop-rock sensibilities and oak-solid songwriting, it's surprising that more people don't know about them. I suggest you start spreading the word.--Brad Jones

Primal Scream
Give Out But Don't Give Up

Okay, so everything on Primal Scream's new recording is derived from its previous disc, Screamadelica--except, that is, for "Rocks," a Seventies glam-rock ripoff. The musicians even have provided a pair of token, you-done-me-wrong weepers ("Free" and "Cry Myself Blind") and a Clinton (as in George) mix of "Funky Jam" that is truly jammin' and funky. Throaty/ whiny frontman Bobby Gillespie sometimes surrenders his lead vocal duties to faux-gospel back-up singer Denise Johnson, and rhymes such as "A little bit of soul/Is worth more than gold" (from "Everybody Needs Somebody") will never be called either original or deep. Still, the album works--even if it isn't prime Scream.--Susan Dunlap

Marty Stuart
Love and Luck

Truth be told, the vast majority of hot country beefcakes bullying their way to the top of the charts are annoying as hell: muscular, hat-wearing Fabians with all the true C&W spirit of a New York cowpoke sporting snakeskin boots that cost more than the average Chevrolet. So thank goodness for Stuart, who blunts his hunkiness with daringly garish suits and a clean but boisterous guitar style that drips with rock and blues influences--not because they're trendy, but because they sound right. Stuart's songwriting isn't exactly groundbreaking--"Oh, What a Silent Night," co-written with Harlan Howard, runs the expected variations on its title, while the title cut tries a little too hard to seem timeless. Nonetheless, his songs are sturdy enough to support both his unaffected vocals and playing by a crack band that includes some of Nashville's least staid sidemen. Just as important, he's willing to stretch: He keeps up with banjoist Bela Fleck on a quirky instrumental called "Marty Stuart Visits the Moon," and offers a version of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" that dares to reimagine this familiar blues shuffle in a country format. The latter doesn't quite come off, but enough of Love and Luck does to make you appreciate the genre anew. And with all the Alan Jackson wannabes out there right now, that's saying something.--Roberts


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