Bell's singing is quite ordinary: He delivers most of these eleven fascinating songs in a voice he seemingly forgot to clear several years ago. And that, believe it or don't, is one of the primary reasons Phoenix is so effective. The musicians who accompany this obscure talent are high-rent--they include violinist David Mansfield, guitarist Stephen Bruton, John Cale on piano and guest vocalists Victoria Williams and Lyle Lovett. But producer Bob Neuwirth wisely keeps the focus on Bell, whose lazy, offhand delivery of rich, fragmentary lyrics summon images of dusty roads, mismatched lovers and wanderers headed for the Great Unknown. On tunes such as "The Beast," "Troubletown," "Girl Who Never Saw the Mountain" and Gary Burgess's "Frankenstein" (the freshest reworking of Mary Shelley's timeworn tale to appear in a very long time), Bell uses his seemingly mundane skills to wring every last drop of blood and sweat from compositions sturdy enough to support his ambitions and penetrating enough to endure. Fans of what currently passes for country music likely will find this disc too dry and plainspoken. Fans of the genuine article likely will recognize it as a godsend.--Michael Roberts
Pigs on Corn
(p o c music)
A little-known performer, Carlos Grasso has disguised himself as a band for this project. But while Depression Sessions reveals his computer-programming talent, the album doesn't prove that he has any musical skills. Grasso effectively distorts a harmonica on "A Shadow in the Shadows" and utilizes a recurring accordion theme credited to sideman "Raul," who plays most of his gigs outside a supermarket in Westchester, California. In spite of the presence of a few human voices and a mildly shocking lyric fragment, however, the rest of the disc seems like an attempt to max out a sampler loaded with acquired sounds (chicken squawks, video-game blips, footsteps in a hollow stairwell, an Epson printer). The result is not spooky enough to play at a Halloween party, nor does it qualify as background noise--but at least it wouldn't interfere with any other music being played simultaneously.--Susan Dunlap
20th Century Blues
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On his new release, Trower, a former member of Procul Harum as well as a premetal rock innovator who gave us killer classics such as Bridge of Sighs, takes us back in time: 20th Century Blues sports the same bare-essentials trio format for which he became known twenty years ago. Trower remains an impeccable guitarist, and he gets good support from drummer Mayuyu and bassist/vocalist/ keyboardist Livingstone Brown, but his skills can't prevent the collection from sounding dated. "Secret Place" is a winsome, fleeting instrumental, and a cover version of Lowell Fulsom's "Reconsider Baby" finds Trower strutting his sweet-talking-blues stuff. But for each musical high (an intricate guitar intro or a melodic solo), there are an equal number of lows. Much of the material is marked by repetition and raggedness, and the work as a whole lacks the feeling you get from the best blues. This would have been a monster hit back in the Seventies, but now it's mainly a nostalgia piece.--Linda Gruno
Just when you thought there was nothing Blur could do to distinguish itself from the current crop of British shoe-gazers, here comes Parklife, which is infused with more life than anything in the act's catalogue. Not that the album is all that original: The catchy single "Girls & Boys" sounds like an early Pete Shelley single, "Tracy Jacks" borrows a hook from "David Watts" (no doubt learned from the Jam, not the Kinks), and other tracks are marked by touches reminiscent of the Damned, Madness and other late Seventies/early Eighties blokes. Hell, even the graphics on the CD booklet smack of the past; they're reminiscent of the credits of a mid-Sixties Richard Lester flick about swinging London. But this isn't merely a retro exercise reflective of taste rather than talent. Instead of aping their influences, vocalist David Albarn and his pals simply borrow from them in a rowdy manner that eschews self-consciousness in favor of celebration. Not only is this Blur's best album, it's also the band's first good one.--Roberts