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Esquivel
Music From a Sparkling Planet
Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
(Bar/None)

Between 1958 and 1967, Mexican pianist-bandleader-arranger-composer Juan Garcia Esquivel recorded and released a series of wonderfully bizarre orchestral albums in the U.S., music that aggressively cross-pollinated big band sounds with the aural anarchy of composer Raymond Scott (whose work was adapted for Warner Bros. cartoons). Esquivel both tapped into established standards ("All of Me," "Sentimental Journey," "Begin the Beguine") and wrote his own outre odes ("Latin-esque," "Mucha Muchacha," "Whatchamacallit"), coating everything with an instrumental zestiness never heard before: streaking horns, shards of Hawaiian guitar, Latin percussion-a-go-go, spooky keyboards (the then-exotic thermin), and scatting group vocals phoned in from another dimension ("zu-zu-zu"). His first American albums (Other Worlds, Other Sounds, Exploring New Sounds in Stereo, Infinity in Sound) reveled in the new sonic possibilities of stereo, with Esquivel reverbing everything to the max and sending it skittering from speaker to speaker like a runaway Superball. You never know what might jump out at you next, and therein lay part of Esquivel's music's zany appeal.

Back in the mid-Eighties, L.A. artist Byron Werner, a fan, dubbed the zippy cocktail concoction of Esquivel and his many genre cronies (notably Martin Denny) "space age bachelor pad music." The phrase stuck. Producer Irwin Chusid has combed through Esquivel's considerable catalogue, culling fourteen tracks for last year's Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and fourteen for the just-out Music From a Sparkling Planet: a futuristic "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," a sproingy "Lazy Bones," an ultrawiggy take on "Third Man Theme," and Esquivel's piano freakout on "Granada." You remember the percolating instrumental sound heard on ancient Maxwell House coffee ads? Here. The impossibly happy-go-lucky whistling heard in a peck of other commercials? Here, too. And lots more fun. (P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken, NJ 07030)

By Michael Yockel

Duran Duran
Thank You
(Capitol)

It was easy to welcome the Durans' 1993 comeback: Older and wiser, heavier and humbler, and sporting a fine new single ("Ordinary World"), they were the likable John Travoltas of pop. Apparently, though, the band mistook their reinstatement on the charts as a sign that we considered them Eighties survivors -- or, worse, elder statesmen. Thus, with confidence regained, they felt qualified to reflect on many of the greats who have preceded them, delivering the tragic act of hubris that is the all-covers Thank You.

The arrogance of this kind of album is that it assumes the audience cares enough about you to want to hear the songs you love. With Duran Duran, the sting is twice as great because they couldn't pull off these covers even if we did care. Perhaps we'll never know what convinced singer Simon LeBon et al. that they were even remotely dynamic enough to cover Grandmaster Flash ("White Lines"), Led Zeppelin ("Thank You"), Elvis Costello ("Watching the Detectives"), and -- eek! -- Public Enemy ("911 Is a Joke") without sounding utterly pathetic. What's more, if Thank You presumes to acknowledge the songs that shaped the band's musical education, then not since Guns 'N Roses' punk tribute, The Spaghetti Incident?, has an album so bizarrely engaged in historic revisionism.

By Roni Sarig

Chris Smither
Up on the Lowdown
(HighTone)

Every woman I know is smitten with Chris Smither. Maybe it's his world-weary baritone or his bright and intricate acoustic guitar playing or his hangdog demeanor. Or perhaps it's his all-it-would-take-is-the-right-woman-to-love-all-my-troubles-away vulnerability.

If Smither is indeed "Happier Blue" (the title track and statement of purpose of his last album), then Up on the Lowdown finds him ecstatic. As he proclaims on the beautifully picked but bleak "Can't Shake These Blues": "The dark is a demon, it swallows me whole/The fear is a shadow that shades my soul/Till I shake in my shoes/But I just can't shake these blues." Cynical without being bitter, romantic without being maudlin, wistful without being manic depressive, Smither finds just the right tone, though his palette tends toward shades of gray. In the quietly powerful "I Am the Ride," he sings: "They asked me if I believe, and if the angels really grieve/Or is it all a comforting invention/It's like gravity I said, it's not a product of my head/It doesn't speak but nonetheless commands attention."

But Lowdown isn't all moody introspection. A few uptempo melodies A the title track, the sprightly and poetic "Link of Chain," and a cover of Jesse Winchester's "Talk Memphis" (virtually a reprise of Happier Blue's version of John Hiatt's "Memphis in the Meantime") A provide some lighter colors, though nothing here is as raucous as his previous acoustic raveups of songs by Chuck Berry and Little Feat. Smither's guitar work is remarkably subtle, recalling the technical prowess of country blues players such as Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis. Like those men, Smither crafts a personal, often troubling, musical vision, suffused with deep feeling. (220 4th St., #101, Oakland, CA 94607)

By Bob Weinberg

Conjunto Cespedes
Vivito y coleando
(Xenophile)

In a world of salsa dominated by languid rhythm sections laying down slick, air-conditioned arrangements, and good-looking young front men who tie their eyebrows in knots while singing about broken hearts, Conjunto Cespedes slams into you like an equatorial storm straight out of West Africa. A scorching percussive drive, Gladys (Bobi) Cespedes's deep, soulful vocalizing, and tight ensemble playing make this conjunto one of the hottest bands around.

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