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Johnny Dowd
Pictures From Life's Other Side

In early 1997, I received a copy of Johnny Dowd's independently released Wrong Side of Memphis that was apparently shipped by the singer himself, and while I was blown away by his practically homicidal way with roots music, I figured I'd be the only one. Wrong. Memphis was eventually reissued by a trendy cult label, Checkered Past, and Dowd's latest appears on Koch, an imprint with growing muscle and national distribution. Fortunately, his newfound respectability has had little impact on his soundness of mind, such as it is. Pictures From Life's Other Side is less spare and more musical than its deranged predecessor, yet Dowd remains very much his edgy, explosive self.

Dowd clearly feels a kinship with Hank Williams: The new disc's title cut is a Williams composition that he reworks into a bluesy backwoods crusher, and "Worried Mind" segues in and out of "Jambalaya." But Dowd is an original, and his own lyrics use simple language that couches romance in life-and-death terms. "God Created Woman," a bizarre round featuring vocalist Kim Sherwood-Caso, finds him offering tortured declarations ("I promised you my kingdom/And everything I own/I stripped myself stark naked/And handed you my skin and bones") in a strangled voice that cracks and breaks at the oddest moments. Later, on the disturbing "No Woman's Flesh but Hers," he pledges his eternal fealty to his wife, who's been in a coma for three years following a car crash caused by Dowd's own horniness and intoxication. And "Butcher's Son," built atop Mike Edmondson's garagey keyboards and skeletal rhythms contributed by a drummer named, of all things, Brian Wilson, blasts off under the power of heavy riffing and words that suggest a trailer-park Dylan: "Mama drinks and Daddy's drunk/And Sister's out back shooting junk."

Sometimes Dowd tries too hard to convince the listener that he's nuts: He delivers "Bad Memories" ("You can't make love without spilling some blood") in a half-falsetto yowl that's mighty self-conscious. But these are minor quibbles. In an industry dominated by carefully packaged material in which rough edges are verboten, Pictures From Life's Other Side is adamantly real. Accept no substitutes. -- Michael Roberts

Various Artists
Dublin to Dakar:
An African/Celtic Odyssey

Afro-Celt Sound System
Volume 2: Release
(Real World)

The Celtic and African cultures are to each other like relatives that never knew the other existed -- once reunited, they work more naturally together than they do apart. At least, that's the working assumption on these two fairly high-profile projects that seek to mix up Celtic heritage with the music of Africa. The hope for listeners who aren't experts on either tradition is that these albums can be enjoyed as pleasurable musical offerings first and reference works second. And while both manage at times to function as significant cultural gestures and entertaining releases, it seems that the Celtic and African players still have a lot to learn about each other before their music actually bonds.

Both albums begin strongly enough. Dublin opens with "United Earth I," a gently tumbling tune composed by the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour and the Bretonian Alan Stivell. Whatever N'Dour is saying, his voice is supplemented by the West African percussion of the kora and djembe that streams beneath Celtic harp and whistle, supporting the skill and influence from two musical cultures on a thematic frame as light as a balsa-wood plane. Beautiful. Simon Emmerson's Afro Celt Sound System's Volume 2: Release opens with a funky title song that features Sinéad O'Connor as a guest lyricist and vocalist; the burn of Emmerson's rubbery bass guitar combines with James McNally's accordion to make this tune kick.

In fact, Release is an incredibly impure distillation of Eurofunk, African and Celtic music that crosses several time lines at once. But both albums have fading degrees of success in attempting to continue the cultural confluence. Dublin loses focus almost immediately, as the memorable "United Earth I" is followed by an electro-Celt-reggae dud from Irish singer Bridget Boden along with former cronies of Bob Marley. Most of the collaborations on the album line up as Scottish/ Guinean, Arabic/French, French/Cornish/ Ghanian/Senegalese, but ambitious as these tracks are, the results just don't stick. Maybe they're too ambitious. The French/Cornish /Ghanian/Senegalese fusion, Baka Beyond's "Soiridh Lois," for instance, has all the workings -- nice tune, steady beat, delicate musicianship -- but is ultimately forgettable. There are some strong moments, such as the soaring violin riffs of "Os Tempos Son Chegados" by the Spanish folk-rockers Na Lua, and the Scottish group Capercallie backing the Guinean vocal duo Sibeba on the charming "Co Ne Mire Rium (Who Will Flirt With Me?)." But these tunes feel like wake-up calls in the middle of the album. And that ain't right.

On Release, you can actually hear the Afro-Celt Sound System slowly betray its initial intentions, one track at a time. This record has more in common with Deep Forest than it does with the Chieftains or King Sunny Ade, which should bring relief and disappointment, respectively. Once Emmerson and company scoot Sinéad from the vocal booth, the earthiness of their fusion is squeezed out like dirty water from a mop. The Celtic Ullean pipes and whistles take their place behind the African kora and balafon -- but they all pale behind the synthesizers of Martin Russell. After the second or third "mystical" (read: mood-setting) intro, you know where you are: in the republic of electronica. Still, the promise of Afro-Celt arrangements never completely fades away, which is what renders Release the stronger of these two works. Exoticism still glints among the machine rhythms, and at its slickest, the Sound System manages to avoid simply making cross-cultural Muzak. -- John Young

Andrea Bocelli

Warning, females: Any dude who invites you back to his place for a nightcap and then spins this collection of pop opera, mock opera and -- in the case of "The Prayer," a duet with Celine Dion -- shlock opera is up to no good. React to it as you would if you'd just found a bottle of date-rape pills next to the bar. Get out. Get out now! -- Michael Roberts

The Beautiful South

It's great when a wayward friend finally decides to clean up his act, check in to rehab and start taking it one day at a time. You're happy for him, of course, but if you're really honest, you'll admit you miss the old days. No more bar-hopping, no more beer-fueled bonding -- just lots of talk about his "higher power." Beautiful South's Quench is sort of like that. On the surface, everything seems to be as it's always been: rotten, bitter and twisted, but wrapped in a coating of sweetness and light, according to the band's trusty formula. With the spry music of composer David Rotheray, ex-Housemartin Paul Heaton inserts his darkly comic tales of murder, domestic violence, prostitution, cheap pop sentimentality and, most splendidly, alcoholism into melodies so lovely that fans take devilish delight when casual listeners mistake the band for inoffensive soft-rockers. On this release, though, Heaton really does seem to have gone soft. Quench deals frequently with battling the bottle (hence its title) but often doesn't satisfy. On "Look What I Found in My Beer," for example, Heaton sings of finding his spiritual side: "Look what I found in drums/A lifelong beat and replacement to the rum/Look what I found in the mic/An end to screwed-up drinking and a Paul I actually like." Bully for him, but what about us? Listeners always counted on Heaton to provide an antidote to pop psychology's "60 Minutes to Higher Self-Esteem" bullshit. Even when Quench sounds naughty, it often isn't. Heaton's ode to fat chicks and little dicks, "Perfect 10," while as catchy as anything else the band has done, is nothing but Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You" for the singles bar. It's not that the album is necessarily bland -- it has a fun song about suicide and a wonderfully nasty duet in which Mom and Pop tell Kiddie conflicting details about his drunken conception. It's just that, for the most part, Quench takes away the pleasure of being Heaton's enabler. -- Chris LaMorte

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