For an artist with such a stratospheric reputation, Smith's body of work is, in a word, skimpy. Horses, from 1975, stands as one of the most impressive debuts in the annals of pop; the first words out of Smith's mouth ("Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not mine," from "Gloria") were acidic indicators of the unforgettable chills that awaited. However, her followup, 1976's Radio Ethiopia, was notably spotty, and 1978's Easter (featuring a cover photo of Smith to which she once claimed to have masturbated) wasn't anyone's idea of an easy listen, with the exception of the hit single "Because the Night," co-penned by Smith and Bruce Springsteen. As for 1979's Wave and the 1988 comeback effort Dream of Life, even true believers found them difficult to praise. Gone Again, fortunately, is better than its two nearest predecessors, although the improvement is more marginal than most of us might wish. The album as a whole is a meditation on death--the death of Smith's husband, ex-MC5 member Fred "Sonic" Smith, the death of Kurt Cobain (subtly memorialized in "About a Boy") and, perhaps, the death (and hoped-for rebirth) of Smith's own career. Predictably, this theme results in a surfeit of draggy tempos; even "Wing," built around a comparatively upbeat lyric, lingers far too long over a reconstituted folk strum that would get most artists hooted straight off the stage. Smith, of course, is not most artists, and that's a good thing. She holds a listener through a pair of modified sea chanteys ("Dead to the World" and "Ravens") by sheer force of will, nervily imitates Bob Dylan during a melodrama-tic tour of one of his own compositions ("Wicked Messenger"), and draws blood with the title cut in spite of its musical similarity to, of all things, "Half-Breed." More often than not, her voice performs similar acts of alchemy on her lyrics; even when she overreaches in "Fireflies" ("Thy spear thy mouth/Thy season of mirth/Thy highs thy lows") or lapses into banality on "Farewell Reel" ("But I look up/And a rainbow appears/Like a smile from heaven"), she oozes enough moxie to sell the words anyhow. These are critical rationalizations, of course, and it would be nice if they weren't necessary--if Smith had managed to do P.J. Harvey, her spiritual daughter, one better. Nonetheless, Gone Again is clearly the work of a major talent. Which is what Smith will remain as long as she bothers.
Everything, I Bet You
If you're looking for the next Replacements--and what aging white male rock critic isn't these days?--you won't do much better than the Honeydogs. Hailing from Minneapolis and sporting deliberately matted hairdos, this foursome serves up some of the most intoxicating three-chord stomps I've heard in years. "Glee," for example, is a liquored-up ode to a habitually humorless barmaid that succeeds in large part because guitarist Tommy Borschied suffuses it with more twang than a Judd family reunion. But ballads such as "Over You" and "Bad Day, Good Night" point out the band's weaknesses; they make it achingly apparent that head 'Dog Adam Levy is no Paul Westerberg, even during those moments when his vocal phrasing and inflections come too close to the mark for comfort. These slower compositions amble along amiably enough, but they lack the moments of offhand transcendence that made the Replacements so enduringly dangerous. And, unhappily, that's as close to the real thing as you're likely to find in 1996.
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Across the Omniverse
A two-CD retrospective of unreleased material recorded over a ten-year period by a little-known cult band: This description sounds at best like an invitation to boredom, at worst like a guaranteed bummer. Instead, Omniverse is a pure, undiluted joy. Since its inception, the Either/Orchestra, a Boston collective with a free-floating membership, has proved that the concept of big-band jazz is not nearly as staid as most contemporary pundits have assumed. The players, including stalwart saxophonist Russ Gershon and keyboardist John Medeski (since graduated to Medeski, Martin and Wood), take an expansive approach to the medium; rather than engaging in slavish mimicry of past masters, as do so many of the Wynton-inspired young lions, they stretch the structures of jazz into new and intriguing shapes even as they underline their essential fondness for the form. Hence, accessibility and innovation are paired in a manner seldom heard from a large combo since the glory days of Carla Bley. The act's range, which encompasses both Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and John Lennon's "(I Want You) She's So Heavy," is just as impressive, in part because the instrumentalists don't appear to see one as the gospel and the other as slumming. Wisdom and playfulness of this sort have the power to push jazz into the next century. Across the Omniverse is a road map showing how to get there.