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Ted Hawkins
The Next Hundred Years
(DGC)

Every so often you hear a performer for the first time and the experience actually changes you. Such epiphanies are usually delivered by someone with an intensely personal vision, one that penetrates directly to your core, cuts you open and crawls inside there A a Neil Young, a John Prine, a Chris Smither. Add to their membership Ted Hawkins, a smoky voiced singer-songwriter-guitarist from the streets of Lost Angeles.

Hawkins is literally from those streets, having spent a good portion of his considerable career singing and strumming while perched on a milk crate in South Central, and later Venice Beach, hoping someone might take notice. Of course someone did, both here and abroad (Hawkins's 1982 Rounder release, Watch Your Step, received raves in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, and the guy's just plain large in Europe).

"You got to know somebody" A he sings in the self-penned "Ladder of Success," one of the most moving tunes on The Next Hundred Years A "Who knows somebody/To finance somebody/To push somebody." Hawkins is never quite bitter, at least not in his music, even though he has any number of good reasons to be. Maybe it was the hard knocks he suffered A time in and out of prison, failed relationships, abject poverty, record company ripoffs, general racism A that have tempered his point of view. Still, it takes an exceptional person to create beauty and compassion out of such ugly and mean circumstances.

Hawkins celebrates life and love in his songs while still managing to address loneliness and despair, all without sinking into bathos or sentimentality. In "The Good and the Bad" he sings: "Living is good/When you have someone to live with," but ends the stanza with the verse, "Dying is good/When the one you love grows tired of you."

Then there's "Green-Eyed Girl," a pretty melody and simple lyric underlined with mandolin echoing the reeling euphoria and bittersweet uncertainty of falling in love. "Groovy Little Things" is just a flat-out love song, the kind Otis Redding might have stamped his Big O on. "Big Things" is Hawkins's statement of purpose: He intends to make his mark before passing from this world.

Covers, too, are thoughtfully -- and tastefully -- chosen, as the former street musician dips into the Cosmos Factory and stops off in "Margaritaville," reinterpreting the trenchant gospel of John Fogerty's "Long As I Can See the Light" and the nautical sounds and imagery of Jesse Winchester's "Biloxi" even more beautifully than Buffett's version.

Like Chris Smither and Mississippi John Hurt, Ted Hawkins, although blues-based, is not strictly a blues player. Folk, gospel, soul, R&B, rock and roll, country, they're all thrown into the gently grooving, distinctive mix. You can hear enough to believe, to know, that it's all real and deeply felt A no artifice A which can make for a painful as well as cathartic listen. Then again, that's what great art is all about.

-- Bob Weinberg

Sarah McLachlan
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
(Nettwerk/Arista)

Sarah McLachlan's latest comes off pretentious in the same way that post-Police Sting comes off pretentious A which is not to say it isn't good, in a wispy, precious, melodic way. McLachlan has written some lovely hooks, notably in "Hold On," which appears on the No Alternative compilation, and in "Circle," which plays like a lost track from Dream of the Blue Turtles.

And she's got the pipes to pull off her characteristic octave leaps and grace notes, frothed into feathery meringue by Pierre Marchand's gauze-and-tulle production. Hear Sarah coo over layered synth. Hear Sarah play acoustic guitar. Hear Sarah sing melodies you will later hum while folding laundry. Just don't listen to the lyrics, because Sarah, like Sting, has a theme complex A Birth, Death, Acceptance, Coming of Age. And at the venerable age of 26, she has a really pompous way of expressing her accumulated wisdom ("Your angels speak with jilted tongues/The serpent's tail has come undone/You have no strength to squander"). The album's title is, unfortunately, apt. This one's a fumble.

-- J.C. Herz

Beck
Mellow Gold
(DGC)

I've been waiting a long time for Jim Carroll to make another album, especially one with the Butthole Surfers. But why'd he change his name?

-- Greg Baker

Orb
Live 93
(Island)

Live rave would seem, at first, to be an oxymoron. Computer musics, DJs, samples, atmospheric clouds of sound A live? Why? As I loaded the disc into my player, I was intensely skeptical about the whole premise for this double album. But strangely enough, the microphone intros, spoken-word asides, amplifier reverb, and crowd songs enhanced the ambient fugue of this Eurohead music. A sample of Rickie Lee Jones's "What Were the Skies Like When You Were Young" (the sunsets were purple and red and yellow on fire and the clouds would catch the colors everywhere) over modal echo beats becomes even freakier when you know it's being playing in Club Yellow, Tokyo.

The twelve pieces (it's impossible to call them "songs"), none of which clock in under nine minutes, are better described by their titles than any attempt to catalogue their content: "Towers of Dub," "Perpetual Dawn," "Spanish Castles in Space," and the nineteen-minute tour de force "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld (Loving U)." The live element only underscores the gaping cultural divide between American Lollapalooza audiences who cheer for cover-tune encores and their Euro counterparts at the Glastonbury music festival. Orb triggers a sample cascade of chirping crickets, tropical birdsong, and ringing telephones, and the crowd goes wild. Like the best live albums, this one makes you wish you could have been there -- at dawn in openhagen, sipping a smart drink and blissing out to the strains of "Oobe."

-- J.C. Herz

Khaled
N'ssi N'ssi
(Mango Records)

This Algerian rai and roller puts the more rock in Moroccan. You might not understand a word he says, but the groove is universal. Ain't never gonna do it without my fez on.

-- Bob Weinberg

Al Kooper
Rekooperation
(MusicMasters)

There simply is no substitute for a Hammond B-3 organ. Yet you hardly ever hear 'em any more (maybe it's because they weigh upwards of 500 pounds; portable they ain't). But still, when that sound hits your ear, it's magic time. You think Booker T. and the MGs. You think Zombies. You think Jimmy Smith. And now you'll think Al Kooper, who has released a soul-spanking collection of almost-nothing-but Hammond-driven instrumentals. And, man, this stuff has grooves tighter than Roseanne in corduroys and twice as nasty.

Yes, this is the same Al Kooper who founded Blood, Sweat and Tears; jammed with partner Mike Bloomfield and Steve Stills; and more ignominiously, coached Stephen King and Dave Barry's efforts to play in a rock band. After a twelve-year solo-recording hiatus, Kooper returns with what may be the best album of his career (and that's really saying something).

Many of the compositions contained on Rekooperation are a payback to those who influenced the keyboardist: a roadhouse rendition of Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," a riffed-out-beyond-recognition romp through Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" (really a tribute to Chuck's pianoman, Johnnie Johnson), and King Curtis's "Soul Twist-ed." Kooper's originals are equally remarkable, including the first and best cut, "Downtime," which he penned along with guitarist Jimmy Vivino, whose burning efforts sear throughout. You can almost smell the funk rising off this track, which echoes the Booker T. recipe for steaming soul: gutpunch bass behind tightly coiled organ lines and bumblebee guitar. The spooky sound of the Hammond is also used to good effect on the haunting and lovely "When the Spell is Broken" by Richard Thompson and an original vamp called "Sneakin Round the Barnyard."

Lending to the soul shenanigans are the Uptown Horns, driving and enlivening more than half the tracks (along with Vivino's chicken scratchings, they put the Memphis into a groovin' "Cleanup Woman") and trumpetman Randy Brecker. But the most appreciated guest star is alto saxman Hank Crawford, who solos (or so lows, if you will) on the Basie-band ballad "After the Lights Go Down Low" and the Kooper comp "How 'My Ever Gonna Get Over You." The latter is the jukebox selection you want to punch up when they're putting the chairs on the tables and you have about seven sips of Seagram's left in the bottom of your glass: sublime after-hours melancholy.

If instrumental soul, R&B, and funk is your thang, don't hesitate, Rekooperate. This one's a winner.

-- Bob Weinberg

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