(DreamWorks/'Heads Spin)

Alex Gifford and Will White, a once-underground U.K. pair known by pretty much everyone but their mothers as Propellerheads, are the latest artists to be hyped relentlessly by a major label--in this case, Dreamworks, the Spielberg/ Katzenberg/Geffen behemoth--in an effort to infect America with electronica fever. And initially, at least, the Props' sound, which draws liberally from hip-hop, funk and techno traditions, seems to outclass the aesthetic achievements of big-league precursors such as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. For instance, "Velvet Pants" uses vocal samples with a clever nonchalance (the boys' camp humor provokes laughs even as their high-impact rock-and-roll rhythms keep hips gyrating), and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," a cover of a relatively obscure James Bond anthem, shows off treated horns, extended swaths of keyboard noodling and persuasive Seventies wah-wah effects. But Gifford and White stumble on collaborative work such as "History Repeating," whose visiting vocalist, diva Shirley Bassey, came up with more memorable results through a teaming with Yello ten years ago, and "360i (Oh Yeah?)," which sounds so much like a track by guest star De La Soul that it's hard to believe the 'Heads were involved at all. And the musicians' chunky retro-beats, which are perfectly suited to the twelve-inch and EP formats favored by club acts, fail to sustain interest over the long haul. No amount of canny marketing can change that.

--Kelly Lemieux

Various Artists
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach
(Tzadik Records)

Dionne Warwick's Scepter collections are the finest Bacharach salutes I can recommend. But if you appreciate Warwick's big, chilly soprano in comparison with the singing of, say, Jackie DeShannon or Karen Carpenter, who tended to let the sap rise in Hal David's lyrics for the sake of their message, you'll probably enjoy the variations that populate this winning tribute CD. The vocal covers are generally fine: They include "Close to You," in which a strong arrangement by keyboardist Wayne Horvitz supplements Robin Holcomb's cemetery breeziness; "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," a Lloyd Cole offering decorated by Robert Quine's guitar; and "The Look of Love," an amusing synthesized duet turned in by Sean Lennon and Yuka Honda, who both mewl appropriately. But even better are instrumental offerings from a who's who of avant jazz and pop. Dave Douglas's trumpet replaces the unlikable words to "Wives and Lovers"; Zeena Parkins produces a strong "Freefall"; Medeski, Martin & Wood create an extremely pretty "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"; and guitarist Marc Ribot's two versions of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" alternate solo strum with surf-guitar madness. Throughout the songs, the musicians dig into Bacharach's unique chord progressions and time changes to achieve a nice lyricism. But aside from the harp, tabla and guitar scrapings that accent Kramer's "Walk on By," there isn't a lot of startling music here; the playing rarely escapes the pre-ordained melancholia that's become the late-Nineties answer to early-Sixties pop. Apparently, these guys have a lot of cool to lose, and they'd like to hang on to it for a little while longer.

--John Young

Paul Burch
Pan-American Flash
(Checkered Past Records)

For fans of vintage country, the success of the Americana format has been a welcome development. The problem is, so much of what record companies promote as the real deal comes up short, with every "next Hank Williams" sounding more like David Gates or Glenn Frey. And on the rare occasion that these up-and-comers hit the mark, their reverence for the past often leads to shortcomings in the soul department. That's not the case with Paul Burch, however. A few minutes into Pan-American Flash, you'll be filled with new hope that Nashville's C&W assassins may eventually be driven from the airwaves. The album contains 45 stirring, graceful minutes of the genuine article, casually slipping from giddy honky-tonk ("13 Nights," "Your Red Wagon") to heartbreaking laments of love and loss ("Living, Forgiving," "Loser's Way to Get Along"). Throughout each knee-deep composition, Burch wraps his lonesome tenor around lush images and pointed, weighty couplets. Just as important, his back-up band, the WPA Ballclub, blesses his odes with tasteful lap steel, stand-up bass and fiddle playing that upholds the authentic standard. Of course, Hank already did it this way, but what elevates Flash to heavenly status is the overwhelming sense of sincerity and optimism that infuses every number. Though Burch's characters may struggle through life "like a bird that flies unfamiliar skies and yearns to touch down," it's "all downhill and shady from now on." This is a great record from one of those rare new arrivals who seem to have fallen straight out of the sky. Pray Burch stays on earth for a long, long while.

--Marty Jones

Gus Van Sant
18 Songs About Golf
(Pop Secret)

Gus Van Sant
(Pop Secret)

Vanity releases, you say? Strangely enough, no. Van Sant, who received an Oscar nomination this year for directing Good Will Hunting and also lists Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho among his film credits, recorded these albums in 1983 and 1985, respectively, during a period when he was perhaps even less famous than you are. Moreover, his songs suggest that he might have had a respectable music career if the camera hadn't beckoned. Of the two releases, 18 Songs About Golf is the weaker, mainly because its title is accurate: The disc really does contain eighteen songs about golf, including "Stoned Cold Pro" ("He's a stoned cold professional/But no one notices/He's the best we've got/He keeps getting those bonuses") and "The Elvis of Golf Courses" ("The roughest and toughest I know/The pine and sand/I shot 94"). But despite the overt novelty of the CD, Van Sant's relaxed speak-singing and gentle pop-rock backdrops help bring it in under par. The same attributes can be found on Gus Van Sant, and some of its subjects are familiar (e.g., "Golf Committee" and "Elvis"). But the other ten tunes on hand are generally quirky rather than silly, with Van Sant singing and strumming like a considerably less angsty Lou Reed. The results are quite pleasant, but that doesn't mean I'll be the first in line to buy the new Ron Howard album. A guy's got to draw the line somewhere.

--Michael Roberts


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