Ted Hawkins
The Next Hundred Years

You would be perfectly justified in assuming that any good reviews given this album would be inspired less by the music than by the personal life of Ted Hawkins, a street performer who has spent most of the past several decades subsisting on spare change tossed his way by tourists strolling the boardwalk in Venice, California. But you'd also be wrong, since The Next Hundred Years is a remarkable document that would stand up to scrutiny even if Hawkins's story wasn't so compelling. The singer (whose previous recordings were issued by minor U.S. and European labels, and sold poorly) has a pleasantly rough, flexible voice that shifts pitch and volume so idiosyncratically that his style initially seems like an affectation. Listen a little longer, though, and you'll discover a vocalist so natural and intuitive that he is able to sense the perfect moment to change the mood of his songs. Covers of the Russ Hill/Mary Shurtz/Michael Pierce tune "There Stands the Glass," Jesse Winchester's "Biloxi" and John Fogerty's "Long As I Can See the Light" are moving, but they can't compare to Hawkins's own compositions, which pin country and blues touches on music that is utterly, undeniably soulful. "Strange Conversation," "The Good and the Bad" and "The Ladder of Success," as framed by Tony Berg's gentle, supportive production, are especially gorgeous and heartbreaking. The Next Hundred Years captures the sound of a gifted artist embracing the opportunity to be heard by a mass audience for the first time, yet so secure in his talent that he sounds as if he's alone on the boardwalk again, hoping against hope that someone will put some folding green into his hat.--Michael Roberts

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

In which the slackers apparent from Stockton, California, continue to elevate garage rock to an art form. Like Slanted and Enchanted, the band's previous Matador opus, Rain rests on an AM-radio foundation comprised of familiar, hummable choruses, dependable 4/4 beats and Patridge Family harmonies. Yet the members of Pavement--currently Stephen Malkmus, Mark Ibold, Stephen West, Bob Nastanovitch and Scott Kannberg--deliver numbers like "Cut Your Hair," "Hit the Plane Down" and "Fillmore Jive" with a loose, hopelessly stoned spontaneity and self-denigrating wit that has more in common with Sonic Youth than with Michael Jackson. In fact, it's hard to imagine these guys playing disjointed, junk-pop tunes such as "Unfair," Malkmus's scathing tribute to his home state, the same way twice. Nevertheless, Rain is filled with some of the niftiest rock and roll being created on the planet today. It just goes to show that even self-proclaimed underachievers can reach greatness--provided they have enough time on their hands.--Brad Jones

(Verve Forecast/Talkin' Loud)

For the life of me, I can't understand how some bands land major-label recording contracts--and then manage to keep them. Incognito, a twelve-member band from England, is a gleaming example of this enigma. Positivity is the group's third Verve release, and while it isn't much worse than the first two, it certainly isn't any better. Bluey Maunick, the European guitarist and funkmaster who leads Incognito, has made a name for himself by producing and writing for such folks as George Duke and Maxi Priest, yet even a beefed-up sound and six guest artists can't prevent the music he calls "jazz/funk" from sounding completely sterile. What Sergio Mendez's Brasil '66 might have sounded like had it collaborated with Isaac Hayes.--Linda Gruno

The Fireman
Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest

This is a performer (group?) that wants its audience to come to its music without preconceptions. Capitol, the record label that released Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, has issued no photographs or biographical data on the artist (artists?) in question, and the jacket of the disc itself sports strikingly little information. As a result, a listener is left with nothing but the music, which in this case is a provocative mixture of ambient sounds, samples and midtempo dance beats. Like a more modest Orb, the Fireman (Firewoman? Firepersons?) imbues tracks such as "Transpiritual Stomp," "Pure Trance" and "Arizona Light" with a warm, relaxed quality that belies their mechanized origins. Some may find the package monochromatic; those interested in variety are advised to look elsewhere. Still, Strawberries is an intriguing collection that will no doubt have fans desperate to learn something/anything about the guy (gal? band?) who made it.--Roberts

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