Soul Coughing

Ruby Vroom

(Slash/Warner Bros.)

If you had any doubt that lead vocalist M. Doughty used to review music (for the New York Press), check out "Sugar Free Jazz," in which he needles acid-jazz trendies with the line "Put your fake goatee on" over a beat that probably wouldn't sound all that out of place on an album filled with, well, acid jazz. Fortunately, this cleverness serves a purpose: Ruby Vroom is a subversive recording, but one that's so relaxed and good-humored that it never descends into brainy inaccessibility. Tunes such as "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" and "Blueeyed Devil" pit Doughty's sing-speak against funk drum patterns, scratchy guitar and a slew of odd sounds pitched in by producer/secret weapon Tchad Blake. As he did on the debut by Los Lobos side project the Latin Playboys, Blake creates an eccentric sonic atmosphere that somehow seems busy and spare at the same time--a characteristic that comes in handy whenever the band veers too close to fields already plowed by Morphine and G. Love & Special Sauce. Still, Soul Coughing is no fashionable clone but a smart-alecky appropriation of hip hop, jazz and rock influences by four never-boring whiz kids. Several of whom probably have fake goatees of their own.--Michael Roberts

Andy Partridge and Harold Budd
Through the Hill

The minor-chord electronic lushness found here is old hat for keyboardist Budd--but old hat doesn't mean worn out. For the most part, Through the Hill is an especially nice offering--futuristic lounge tinkling that sounds best at those moments when Budd allows spacy white noise to billow up behind his quiet arpeggios as if he were playing his synthesizers inside a conch shell. In the meantime, Partridge, of XTC fame, slides his fingers across acoustic and synthesized fretboards (loansies from bandmate Dave Gregory), and for once his discord sounds easeful. Maybe this is because Partridge doesn't recite his own poetry; then again, Budd's delivery of his partner's words provides a few unwelcome moments of tension. Beyond that, this is good reading music that likely will have you searching for The Pearl, Budd's 1984 collaboration with Brian Eno and an album good enough to inspire some radical easy listener to produce an ambient-music fanzine.--John Young

George Winston
(Windham Hill)

The first half of this CD includes the songs "The Cradle" and "Last Lullaby Here"; the second sports "The Snowman's Music Box Dance" and "Night Sky." Wake me when it's over.--Roberts

Barenaked Ladies
Maybe You Should Drive

The good news is that the (all-male) members of this Toronto fivesome appear intent on outgrowing the novelty reputation spawned by "If I Had a Million Dollars," their first album's alterna-hit. The better news is that, in large part, they're succeeding. Thanks to picture-perfect neofolk arrangements and pleasant (if deliberately wimpy) vocals, Drive downshifts the campy spirit that all but defined the band's last outing. The boys are at their best when they plumb a single lyrical conceit for multiple shades of meaning, as they do in "The Wrong Man Was Convicted." The material is less satisfying, though, when the group's various songwriters hide behind wanton displays of cleverness that, emotionally speaking, never make it out of first gear (for proof, listen to the tune entitled "A"). And the superfluous "Little Tiny Song" seems to have been included only to prove that the Ladies can still let down their expertly disheveled hair whenever they choose. Still, the buoyancy of songs like "Jane" and "Life in a Nutshell" make this disc a roadworthy sophomore effort.--John Jesitus

Alloy Orchestra
New Music for Silent Films

Composing soundtracks for the silent-era cinema suddenly has become a favorite pastime among musical avant-gardists; practically every week in New York, classics by Buster Keaton or D.W. Griffith, complete with new, modern accompaniment, are enjoying second premieres seventy years after their first. However, few of these scores stand on their own as well as this collection of seventeen snippets suggested by a variety of pictures. Metropolis, the 1926 Fritz Lang anti-utopian masterwork, is the best-known of these inspirations, and the orchestra (actually a three-piece dominated by Caleb Sampson's synthesizers and Terry Donahue's accordion) comes up with five movements that juxtapose machine-age effects with atmospherics that are both foreboding and oddly seductive. Later, a brief passage motivated by 1928's The Wind combines a roiling piano section with Ken Winokur's sweeping percussion effects. But New Music is far more intriguing than the average backing tracks, even if you haven't seen these pictures. The images you'll see in your head no doubt will be just as captivating as those you might see on the screen.--Roberts

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