Barry Black
Barry Black

Even those of you familiar with the odd pop games played by the Archers of Loaf may be taken aback by this solo project put together by the band's frontman, Eric Bachmann. For one thing, this singer doesn't do much singing: Barry Black is dominated by idiosyncratic instrumentals recorded with the assistance of players from Ben Folds Five, the Red Clay Ramblers and points even farther out. Moreover, the handful of vocals on the disc are used as mere color commentary on the tracks themselves, among them near rockers ("Cockroaches," "Golden Throat"), ambient noodlers ("Train of Pain") and full-on jokes ("Vampire Lounge," which is recorded at about half the volume of the other tunes for that living-dead effect). So varied are the selections that the platter easily could have degenerated into the sort of vanity project that wouldn't tickle anyone outside the musicians' immediate families. But somehow, Bachmann's amalgamation of saxophones, clarinets, flutes, cellos, violins, pianos and (mustn't forget this) water pots comes across as relaxed, charming--even adventurous--in a peculiar, toy-factory-run-amok sort of way. Have fun, now.--Michael Roberts

Carl Allen
(Atlantic Jazz)

Drummer/bandleader Carl Allen's second Atlantic Jazz release is being touted as "improvisation with divine inspiration." And perhaps there's something to that: Allen's latest is an invigorating listen--and that's practically a miracle given the musical blandness from which most of the post-Wynton crowd suffers. Testimonial features five interpretations, including Ellington's "Come Sunday," Cedar Walton's "Holy Land" and the traditional gospel tune "City Called Heaven," as well as seven Allen originals that attempt (successfully, for the most part) to infuse creative jazz with a heavy dose of spirituality. Allen is aided in his mission by a wonderfully sensitive crew, including business partner/saxophonist Vincent Herring, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Reuben Rogers and guest contributors organist/ pianist Cyrus Chestnut, guitarist Mark Whitfield and bassist Christian McBride. Allen says the recording is his "musical thank-you card to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose continued love and guidance sustains me." But this fresh and lively disc isn't a simple excursion into the healing feelings offered by church music; there are far too many factors at play to support such a conclusion. In fact, the album put this listener in the mood associated with Neil Simon's carefree comedies of the Sixties--proof positive that God-inspired song can take you to the most unlikely places.--Linda Gruno

Grateful Dead
Hundred Year Hall
(Grateful Dead/Arista)

Anything I say about this would get me in trouble.--Roberts

Yo La Tengo

Rock critics have always adored Yo La Tengo, and with good reason--guitarist and songwriter Ira Kaplan is a virtuoso and a true artist who rejects pretentious solos and constantly seeks new sounds. In the past he's experimented with everything from punk feedback to acoustic folk on albums such as New Wave Hot Dogs and May I Sing With Me. This time out, the emphasis is on glorious texture: instrumental conversations, intricate threads and atmosphere galore. Songs like "The Hour Grows Late," "The Ballad of Red Buckets" and "My Heart's Reflection" are hypnotic, complex and trance-inducing combinations of organ and guitar. But lest you think the New Jersey band's music is inscrutable or elitist, Electr-O-Pura also includes the driving, noise-infested tracks "Tom Courtenay" and "False Alarm." Perhaps Kaplan himself sums up the disc best in his liner notes. "It's the start of a musical dialogue," he writes. "Sometimes, not often, you start a number and something miraculous happens, and then the scene is beautiful."--Steve Boland

Boy George
Cheapness and Beauty

I know that none of you are going to listen to this; hell, I wouldn't have listened to it had the record company not shipped it to me for free. After all, I never enjoyed Culture Club, and while the Boy's subsequent solo efforts proved that he didn't give up easily (a worthy characteristic), they sucked like a black hole the size of the Milky Way. Furthermore, this CD's cover photo, in which George is a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, didn't exactly wet my wick. Imagine my abject shock, then, when several tunes on Cheapness turned out to be somewhat entertaining. For example, both the Iggy Pop cover "Funtime" and "Sad" are up-tempo glam rockers in the T. Rex mode; "Satan's Butterfly" is such a blatant ripoff of the Escape Club's "Wild, Wild West" that it's actually funny; and "God Don't Hold a Grudge" wouldn't embarrass Oasis. The rest of the material is considerably weaker, and "If I Could Fly" may be the worst song of all time--it's damn close, anyhow. Even so, the tolerable items here suggest some staggering questions: If Boy George can make a decent album, could Julio Iglesias? Kenny Rogers? Jimmy Buffett?--Roberts


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