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Billy Pilgrim
Bloom
(Atlantic)

Andrew Hyra and Kristian Bush, who compose the folk-pop duo Billy Pilgrim, started strumming their acoustic guitars together in Atlanta bars and coffeehouses and are partial to sweet harmonies, so it follows that some scribes have labeled them "the Indigo Boys." But on Bloom, their second album, Hyra and Bush A augmented in the studio by a crack band that includes former E Street bassist Garry Tallent and, on a couple of cuts, Heartbreaker ax whiz Mike Campbell -- sound more like the rootsy cousins of last year's alternapop darlings, the Gin Blossoms.

Much of Bloom's spark is provided by the band, but Richard Dodd's crisp production (his engineering credits include the Traveling Wilburys and Tom Petty) keeps the vocals squarely out front. That's a blessing most of the time: Not only can Hyra and Bush craft hook-laden pop gems, they also know how to spin entertaining yarns, usually about the more frustrating aspects of love. A few of the takes are somewhat twisted, a trait particularly in evidence in the seething "Watching," in which the aural dynamics are matched by the tense, brooding commentary of a jealous voyeur ("I could end it right here with just one shot"). Yeah, well, Hyra's slightly nasal delivery brings mellow crooner Kenny Loggins to mind, so it's hard to take the threat seriously. And Bloom, which revels in snappy melodies and singsong choruses, works best when the pair keeps the patter light, such as on "Caroline," a wry, buoyant look at a manipulative beauty who's "seen through one too many Casanovas," and on "Shallow," in which Hyra pines for a superficial babe over the sound of Campbell's chiming twelve-string.

By Jim Murphy
Billy Pilgrim performs with Mary Karlzen at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 9, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198. Admission is $6.

Portastatic
Slow Note from a Sinking Ship
(Merge)

As Portastatic proves, even indie-rock icons need an alternative to their alternative. Mac McCaughan, founder of the North Carolina label Merge, takes a break from the melodic punk guitars of his other, better-known band, Superchunk, to brew a low-key batch of songs under an alias that salutes the "static" of the "Portastudio" four-track tape recorder.

With the exception of a song such as "San Andreas," which doesn't stray too far from Superchunk, much of Slow Note -- notably "When You Crashed," "Running Water," and "A Cunning Latch" -- is an unusual but not entirely unfamiliar clash of lazy lap steel, woozy acoustic strumming, new-wave synth sounds, and postpunk guitar-effect washes. McCaughan impressively balances the looseness and immediacy of low-fi with a fairly clean studio sound to make what he calls a "totally mid-fi" record.

But for all the DIY ethic embodied here, there's also a sense of McCaughan's discomfort with the intimacy of home recordings. While some bedroom composers claim they tape themselves to ensure they're still alive, on the album-closing "In the Manner of Anne Frank," McCaughan swears "I will not keep a diary because someone might read it." He lets us in close to the music but offers no soul-purging lyrics. Which, of course, means that not only is McCaughan no Anne Frank, he's not even a Lou Barlow.

By Roni Sarig

Mike Smith
Sinatra Songbook
(Delmark)

Like the Chairman of the Board himself, saxophonist Mike Smith comes out swinging on his tribute to Frank Sinatra. The album opens with a playfully Monkish Latin piano vamp on "All or Nothing at All," Smith's alto tone as brash and clear as the Fifties-era Sinatra who had the world by the balls. But as has always been the case with Sinatra, it's the ballads that are most memorable here: Smith's gorgeous rendition of "Nancy with the Laughing Eyes" and the luscious and languorous "Angel Eyes" display all the intimacy and sadness that Sinatra could bring to bear on after-last-call sentiments (but not sentimentality, a brush with which no one could tar Sinatra); Smith also conjures sax greats Lester Young and Ben Webster, who, like Sinatra, had a fair way with wee-hour balladry.

Smith takes his cues from "The Voice" himself, having held the alto chair in Sinatra's show band for the past six years. As befits a tribute record, the saxophonist, who doubles on soprano, stays true to Sinatra's style with clear articulation and the emotional honesty that has been a Sinatra trademark. As also befits this project, the sensitive quartet that backs Smith -- pianists Ron Perillo (his bluesy touch is just right on "Nancy") and Jim Ryan, drummer Bob Rummage, and bassist John Whitfield A stays mostly in the pocket, providing cool, subdued grooves, shades, and rhythms.

Smith's loving presentation of Sinatra staples honors both the singer, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, and the timeless songs that made him king of the hill, A-number-one, top of the heap, et cetera.

By Bob Weinberg

Popol Vuh
City Raga
(Milan/BMG)

Neoclassical fusionists Popol Vuh have been producing synthetic-ethnic jazz-pop for nearly three decades, first emerging from Germany's avant-garde scene in 1969. On City Raga, their twentieth album, the new-age hippies do little to change das formula of ethereal melodies and gentle pulsations, producing what Popol Vuh founder Florian Fricke calls "dream techno." Best known for their soundtrack work in the Seventies (they did for German filmmaker Werner Herzog what Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone and his spaghetti Westerns in the Sixties), PV's self-proclaimed spirituality fuels the seven tracks here, alternating between acoustic-laced mantras (the grooving "Morning Raga") and bracing beats (the stoic "Tears of Concrete"). The set is amiable enough, just not incredibly visionary. Missing the edge that typified their earlier work, City ends up sounding a bit too urbane.

By George Pelletier

 
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