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Elvis Costello
Kojak Variety
(Warner Bros.)
Robert Forster
I Had a New York Girlfriend
(Beggars Banquet)

As a result of his huge rep as a songwriter, Elvis Costello's talents as an interpreter of others' work often has been overlooked. -- pity, because in the past he adroitly has embodied songs by everyone from Nick Lowe to Burt Bacharach-Hal David to Sam and Dave. Recorded four years ago with a crack band (guitarists Marc Ribot and James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, pianist-organist Larry Knechtel, and drummers Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas), Kojak Variety finds Costello in pop ethnomusicologist mode, pawing through his apparently sizable record collection to cull cherished tunes.

He fares best when singing ballads: a simmering version of Mose Allison's biting "Everybody's Crying Mercy," an airy reading of Randy Newman's lovely "I've Been Wrong Before," and elegant renditions of both Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" (from Nashville Skyline) and Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You." And he pours bucketfuls of soulfulness into an obscure Supremes song ("Remove This Doubt") and the old Aretha Franklin number "Running Out of Fools," while tearing into Bill Anderson's painful "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face." Of course he stumbles from time to time -- the cover of the Kinks' "Days" completely obliterates the song's innate wistfulness with production overkill -- but mostly Costello does right by the originals, further authenticating his appreciation for the fading craft of songwriting and demonstrating his considerable skills as a singer.

Like Costello, Robert Forster has made his mark as a singer-songwriter. Unlike Costello, Forster's work -- both solo and with the criminally undervalued Go-Betweens, perhaps the finest Australian band of the Eighties -- largely has gone unnoticed in this country. Released last fall to general indifference, I Had a New York Girlfriend runs with the same notion as Kojak Variety: Gather a clutch of musicians-chums to record a peck of fave songs. Forster's arch baritone fits best with country-folk material that distills a certain drama. That makes his takes here on Guy Clark's "Broken-Hearted People," Dylan's "Tell Me That It Isn't True" (also from Nashville Skyline), Mickey Newbury's "Frisco Depot," and Bill Anderson's "3 AM" (him again!) particularly effective. But Forster also reanimates Neil Diamond's pop-strummy "Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow," pitches himself headlong into Nova Mob's driving, affecting "2541" (proving that when Grant Hart is on, he'll always outwrite old Husker Du bandmate Bob Mould), and glides across Michael Hansonis's shimmering "Bird" in a duet with Suzie Ahern. And while Forster's readings of Spirit's "Nature's Way" and Martha and the Muffins' "Echo Beach" won't make anyone forget the originals, merely resuscitting them almost seems sufficient.

By Michael Yockel

Butch Hancock
Eats Away the Night
(Sugar Hill)

Butch Hancock is the only member of the legendary early-Seventies trio the Flatlanders never to have found a mass audience. Joe Ely, adopted by the Clash for their late-Seventies U.S. tours, scored. Much more recently, Jimmie Dale Gilmore notched his niche in the singer-songwriter pantheon (1993 Grammy nomination + 1995 profile in the New York Times Magazine = niche notched).

Not so Hancock. A shame, because among the three he's the purest songwriter. Whereas Ely's music is pretty much meant to be taken as it is and Gilmore's work has earned him the "metaphysical" tab, Hancock is a metaphorical writer. "If I was a highway, I'd stretch alongside you/I'd help you pass by ways that have dissatisfied you," he sings in "If You Were a Bluebird," a song covered by Ely nearly ten years ago and given a splendid, spare re-treatment on this album. Those who know Hancock from previous releases know he is also a storyteller and a balladeer; songs such as "Welcome to the Real World Kid," "One Kiss," and the title cut ("Time has got this hungry mouth to feed/And it always bites off what it needs/But when it's had its fill of broad daylight/It just eats away the night") won't disappoint.

Gurf Morlix -- virtuoso sideman to Lucinda Williams among others -- does double duty as guitarist and producer, with sharp but unobtrusive results. Along with Hancock's harmonica and the occasional appearance of an accordion or fiddle, Riley Osbourn's ubiquitous Hammond B-3 organ provides striking counterpoint to Hancock's vocals. His voice is remarkable, even when compared to his ex-bandmates' (and still-buddies'). While Ely's delivery is that of your basic straight-ahead Texas rocker, and Gilmore's reedy tenor yields lovely high-lonesome intimations of Hank Williams, Hancock's power is raw, a semi going by on the highway outside your motel room in the dead of night, its Dopplered moan penetrating the sheetrock and waking you up to the disturbing realization that you were dreaming about the exact same things you'd driven all day in order to forget.

By Tom Finkel

Celine Dion
The French Album
(Sony)

There is just no earthly reason why I should like this album. It's bubblegum pop. It involves drum machines. It is sung in French. And yet I can't quite bring myself to hate the thing. There's, like, three songs on the album that are actually ... kinda cool. The dozen tunes here were written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, who is described in press releases as the "Bob Dylan of France." For the present, I'll ignore this painful oxymoron, and simply note that the guy knows how to write a pop song. I'm not saying anyone should go out and buy The French Album. Heavens, no. But consider it as a gift for that loved one with adult-contemporary leanings. Okay, maybe I'm going a bit soft, but remember, Ze temps, zay are a'changing.

By Steven Almond

Various Artists
Margaritaville Cafe New Orleans A Late Night Gumbo
(Margaritaville)

While listening to the new John Prine album, a friend of mine remarked, "God, it sounds like Jimmy Buffett." She didn't mean it as a compliment. Although the Key West troubadour is one of the best storytellers to ever craft a ballad, and perhaps the greatest chronicler in song of the feel of Florida (remember "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season"?), Buffett's accompanying music can be, to put it kindly, somewhat bland. That said, Late Night Gumbo, a compilation of New Orleans R&B and zydeco artists who record for Buffett's Margaritaville label, is more interesting than just about anything the singer-songwriter has recorded in years.

The ingredient chiefly lacking from Buffett's own music -- intriguing rhythms -- is in generous supply here. From the second-line strut of the Rebirth Brass Band -- a pumping tuba riff lays down the bottom while handclaps and martial drum rolls provide the marching orders -- to the rub-board-fueled, bordello-piano party tunes of Rockin' Dopsie, Jr., polyrhythms abound.

There's some fine singing, too, courtesy of Waylon Thibodeaux ("I'm Going Down to Bourbon Street" has the makings of a Crescent City classic) and Rockin' Dopsie, whose accordion-driven R&B is reminiscent of Buckwheat Zydeco. A band called the Bluerunners clocks in with the jumping zydeco workouts "Stringbean" and "Canecutter," while the Iguanas brand of Louisiana R&B seems somewhat tame, though not entirely joyless ("Eatin' With Fingers" is a perfect kids song, as well as a nod to long-time Buffett harmonica player and album co-producer Fingers Taylor). Ditto the song serving as a showcase for harmonica man Jumpin' Johnny Sansone.

And, yes, Parrotheads, J.B. makes his presence felt with two contributions: a hurts-by-comparison-to-the-original version of Huey "Piano" Smith's "Sea Cruise" that'll make you nostalgic for Frankie Ford's hit record, and a great cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene." Now, if only Buffett can transfer some of this funk to his own releases....

By Bob Weinberg

nine inch nails
Further Down the Spiral
(Nothing/Interscope)

Would that Trent Reznor actually were contributing to the "coarsening of the culture" (as propounded by anti-Time-Warner forces) as creatively and with as much sense of fun as did Iggy "Death Trip" Pop and the Ramones (remember that buzzing chainsaw on their first album?) in their heydays. As it is, about all this hour-plus of Downward Spiral remixes has going for it is our boy Trent's generosity in pricing the disc as an EP. Hired guns such as Rick Rubin, Jim Thirlwell, and Aphex Twin fail to break Reznor's predictable patterns: These are the same rattling drum machines, distortion treatments, loud-soft dynamic shifts, and tortured-artist-effect lyrics of a man whose idea of a really heavy cover song is Adam Ant's "Physical." And at no extra charge, there's a "quiet" version of Reznor's Peter Gabriel homage, "Hurt" (don't miss the rotting animal video). All of it so much colder than the megadramas of, say, Ministry. Reznor probably would approve of my saying his music has no soul, or at least no center. But this ain't rock and roll, and it ain't no genocide. It's just a big blank.

By Rickey Wright

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