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Trish Murphy
Rubies on the Lawn

Trish Murphy
Rubies on the Lawn
(doolittle/Mercury Records)

With her new release, Austin-based singer/ songwriter Trish Murphy has leapt a considerable distance. On Rubies on the Lawn, Murphy stretches her coffeehouse folkster beginnings across a decidedly more accessible landscape to create an impressive, from-the-heartland pop gem. Rubies is a scrumptious sheet of audio toffee that rivals Aimee Mann's brilliant I'm With Stupid for brainy song-sculpting and muscular hooks that can lift mountains.

Like Mann, Murphy prefers a shiny setting for her shimmering-but-stirring songbook. Producer Jim Ebert provides these touches in the proper amounts, with half-in-the-mix techno touches that nicely decorate Murphy's jangle. For the most part, the candy coating never gets so dense that it dulls Murphy's sharp edges. "Outsider [216K aiff]," the disc's opening cut, lopes with gooey guitars that push Murphy's reedy voice -- a thrilling instrument that rises from willowy whisper to girlish glee and trembling growl -- inside the brain. The all-American thrills continue on the disc's other buffalo-plaid rockers; " Go There [232K aiff]" and "Soul's Day" lurch from muted crunch to glossy open skies, while "Runaway Train" delivers delicious minor-chord delights. When Murphy purrs how she and her partner "did it in the road" on this steel-wheeled stomper, its clear she takes her travel time seriously.

In between these romps, Murphy backs off for a few redeeming acoustic numbers and sweeter efforts, losing steam only on an overproduced cover of " These Boots Are Made for Walking [243K aiff]" and the candy corn of "I Know What You Are." Murphy's swagger and smarts make amends for these minor offenses and make Rubies the kind of platter that satisfies both the brain and the rockin' bones. If radio programmers built play lists on taste instead of test-market audiences, Murphy would be filling the shoes of Sheryl, Alanis and those feminine rockers now dressing up the airwaves. Until that day arrives, though, a roll in the grass with this addictive diamond-out-of-nowhere will have to do. -- Marty Jones

John Fahey
The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites
(Takoma)

Plenty of acoustic guitar instrumentals are flat-out boring for a very simple reason: They're meant to be. Many technically skilled pickers settle for making pretty background music rather than challenging the preconceptions of their listeners and themselves. But not Fahey, who throughout his long career has burrowed himself into the dark side of the American folk music tradition. He not only recognizes the macabre aspects of the blues and other related idioms, but revels in them.

The Dance of Death, Fahey's third album, originally laid down in 1964, finds him at his most pleasingly funereal. "Worried Blues [254K aiff]," a Fahey original, is built around an almost spritely guitar figure, yet he never allows it to take wing, first dragging it into a tumble of low notes and later slowly uncoiling it as the tune fades into oblivion. " Variations on the Coocoo [229K aiff]," a Clarence Ashley composition arranged and adapted by Fahey, employs a similar strategy, racing along at a freight-train pace that's more about hellhounds on his trail than escape from earthly bounds.

Such descriptions may make this newly available platter seem like a bummer on par with holiday dinners with the in-laws, but that's hardly the case. " Dance of Death [243K aiff]" makes the great beyond seem like a lovely place to visit, thanks to a progression that's all about acceptance of the inevitable, and "Tulip (aka When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose)," one of four bonus tracks on hand, displays a shambling cheerfulness. Fahey's effects here and elsewhere are subtle, and he employs them with black-hearted joy. "It was an interesting session," he recalls in the package's fine liner notes, written by Lee Gardner. "It was the only one I ever did on marijuana and whiskey." If you've got to die, what a way to go. -- Michael Roberts

Pavement

Terror Twilight

(Matador Records)

Pavement's latest is a tough one to penetrate, even for fans, but worth the effort. Daily listening -- for two weeks, solid -- turned up only two hooks in the opening and closing numbers ("Spit on a Stranger" and "Carrot Rope" -- not coincidentally, the album's lead singles in the U.S. and U.K., respectively). The rest read as a fairly watered-down Pavement album, which is better perhaps than run-of-the-mill alterna-rock, but disappointing for one of the best American rock bands of the Nineties. All of the pieces that make Pavement, well, Pavement seemed in place -- lucid phrases snuck into obscure (but not impenetrable) lyrics, great guitar all over the place -- but some intangible initially seemed to be missing. It was only after returning to the record that the other thing that makes the band what it is -- pop hooks -- finally became clear and jumped out of the speakers.

Unlike the band's more avant-garde role models, Pavement isn't afraid to snare you with catchy tunes to get their meanings across. And once they'd cooled off a bit, said hooks proved to be here in force, if the band's subtlest ever. And also unlike their pop peers, Pavement can be willfully obscure. Though that doesn't mean that their songs are without meaning, it does mean that those meanings can be difficult for the casual listener to discern among the red herrings and personal references.

Like a shy acquaintance who's hard to get talking but won't shut up once rolling, Terror Twilight comes on slow and then holds fast and strong -- a solid collection that grows with each listen, if not quite a dazzling set. -- Patrick Brown

Matthew Shipp Duo

DNA

(Thirsty Ear)

A 1998 newsletter article from one of Denver's local jazz radio stations makes this rather bold and worrisome statement: "With more and more jazz musicians laboring under the mistaken belief that good art need not be popular, [post-Fifties] jazz distanced itself from popular -- for example, dance -- music." Considering that jazz claims less than a 3 percent share of U.S. music sales, debating the health of its gene pool might seem like wasted circular breathing. But pianist Matthew Shipp's sixteenth album, DNA, is a perfect conversation piece with which to address the artistry-popularity debate. Though lauded in circles from classical to jazz to indie rock, Shipp's challenging, unorthodox style has irked traditionalist critics like Stanley Crouch. As the stature of the late composer and pianist Sun Ra attests, perhaps there is a more appropriate lens than market penetration through which to view this age-old debate: seriously consider both degrees of original expression and levels of disciplined ability.

On this CD, Shipp and bassist William Parker again pass the test, emerging as brilliant, meditative, free improvisers and demonstrating technical mastery to the point at which it's not even a consideration. With "Cell Sequence," the Parker-Shipp double helix calms us before the storm, enveloping down-tempo phrases with colorful recombinations. On "Genetic Alphabet," Parker's evocative bow and gentle passages from Shipp ease us into art music that works on an inspirational level. Fragmentary, graceful gestures clash against an expansive tapestry, heightening the effect of both. Only "Orbit," a heavily linear attempt to induce a trance-like state, stumbles on this CD, which begins and ends with short, exhilarating traditionals ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Amazing Grace"). Imagine a world in which artists and thinkers covet acceptance first and foremost. That is our world, actually. Fortunately, musicians like Shipp and Parker, though instinctively aware of the tradition upon which they build, are more obsessed with the craft than their celebrity. -- Thomas Peake


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