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Hal Shows
Lifeboat
(Raven)

"Nobody said this would be easy," intones Hal Shows at the beginning of "Pawnish Queen," the second cut on Lifeboat. The line is prophetic, as the Tallahassee-based musician spends much of his self-produced album obsessing about the personal consequences of living in a dysfunctional society, while skillfully documenting the individual dramas that unfold. But Shows is no whiner, and Lifeboat reveals a songwriter who knows how to manipulate his audience by balancing seamy imagery with catchy, often playful melodies. So while a close study of Shows's dense, oblique lyrics might tempt the listener to follow the intuition of the narrator in the ska-tinged "St. Christopher's Note" (who toys with the idea of cutting himself with a dull knife), the bleak philosophical outlook that informs Lifeboat is belied by Shows's deadpan delivery and a grab bag of musical styles that make the CD easy to digest.

In "Pawnish Queen," Shows lets go with the litany of challenges that face the song's subject ("Now incest, envy, and jealousy/Start to poison the scene"), but a positively Dylanesque roller-rink organ straight out of Blonde on Blonde happily trails the tune's slight reggae bounce. Later the organ pairs up with a woozy trumpet and Shows's off-kilter guitar to lend a carnival feel to "Brave New Girl," wherein Shows observes, "The singletary type is scared to death/Of touching anybody except himself." Appropriately, his most disturbing tale here is also, in a way, his funniest. The quasi-surf ditty "A Bad Cold" describes a meaningless closing-time flirtation in a bar that turns into a violent, ultimately fatal encounter with a jealous redneck. "Now I broadcast this advice/From a suite in Paradise," sings Shows, continuing, "When temptation rears its head/Contemplate the taste of lead." Throughout Lifeboat, Shows's rage is never so far below the surface that it goes unnoticed. (1960 Raymond Tucker Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32311)

By Jim Murphy

Brian Wilson
I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
(Karambolage/MCA)

Beach Boy Bruce Johnston complained last year about some of the tracks included on Capitol Records' boxed set of the group's work. Why isolate the vocal track from "All Summer Long" when it's out of tune, he asked? If that masterpiece strikes Johnston's ear as sounding "wrong," God only knows what he makes of this cri de coeur drawn from sessions for the Don Was-directed documentary on pop master/former Beach Boys architect Brian Wilson's life. A ravaged-sounding but game Wilson offers new renditions of the sort of little-known classics that Beach Boys fans have clung to for an age: "Caroline, No," "Let the Wind Blow," "The Warmth of the Sun," "This Whole World." Claim these versions are as outright gorgeous as the Sixties and early-Seventies originals and you don't have a leg to stand on, although the set-closing "'Til I Die" comes within a hair of the Surf's Up take, thanks to an older, perhaps wiser Wilson and a backing-vocalist lineup that includes long-time Was collaborators Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens. Whether, as has been claimed in the past (recall his 1988 self-titled solo album), "Brian's back" will remain unsettled, at least until the February release of Orange Crate Art, his long-awaited reunion with composer-arranger Van Dyke Parks. But These Times succeeds at making its case: Brian Wilson's songs stand among the most affecting ever written.

By Rickey Wright

Lionel Hampton
For the Love of Music
(MoJazz)

Art is dead. The thought occurred to me as I watched Brian Adams on TV busting his spleen on "O Sole Mio" in a duet with Luciano Pavarotti. Why, in pity's name, did the producers of this concert deem it necessary to bolster a performance of the greatest singer of our time with an overwrought pop screamer such as Adams? Chalk it up to the general dumbing down of our culture, where everything fine and beautiful must be smeared with pop sheen and made palatable to the lowest common denominator. Which brings us to Lionel Hampton's latest record. At the age of 87, the legendary vibraphonist, who played alongside everyone from Louis Armstrong to Wes Montgomery, could release any kind of album he wants and choose from any number of great jazz sidemen who would drool at the opportunity to cut a track with him. And yet For the Love of Music is a high-gloss pop album, nowhere near the fine jazz record Hamp is capable of producing, even this late in the game.

Hampton's most famous composition, "Flying Home," kicks off the eleven-song collection, tricked up with an R&B-funk groove that borders on sacrilege; the presence of young tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman doesn't help much, as he plays in a style more suitable to James Brown's Maceo Parker than the yet-to-be-improved-upon solo created by Illinois Jacquet on the original. "Gates Groove" is an uninteresting Stevie Wonder toss-off in tribute to Hampton. Chaka Khan's fine composition and vocal, "Gossamer Wings" -- which is indeed a lovely R&B song -- has no place on a jazz record. Ditto "Jazz Me," which features some exceptional guitar work from Norman Brown but slips into Love 94 territory. For his part, Hampton's presence seems almost incidental, as if he were a sideman on someone else's project.

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