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Tal Ross
a.k.a. detrimental vasoline -- Giant Shirley
(Coconut Grove Recording Company)

Eccentricity has its place in pop music. Come to think of it, pop music may be the only industry in which going off the deep end might be considered a viable -- if not exactly smart -- career move. Original Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett's acid-induced journey into madness enhanced the aura of intrigue that surrounded his former band during its Seventies heyday. Brian Wilson's composing-in-the-sandbox method was a frequent source of bemused speculation within the music press throughout the 1970s, although the hoots quickly subsided once it was revealed that the genius behind the Beach Boys had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Then there's Michael Jackson, who . . . well, there's really no need to elaborate, is there?

Besides, we're getting off the point, and none of this is meant to imply that Tal Ross -- who hard-core fans of the Parliament-Funkadelic alliance may remember as a founding member of the latter band -- is playing with anything less than a full deck. It's just that Ross certainly wears his eccentricities on his sleeve. The press bio that accompanies a.k.a. detrimental vasoline A Giant Shirley recounts the singer-guitarist's withdrawal from the music biz 24 years ago, noting that Ross, for reasons that were "partially chemically induced, part noble intent," walked out on Funkadelic in the middle of a 1971 tour and retreated to a trailer in Maxton, North Carolina, in a "quest for musical purity and deliverance." The bio takes pains to point out that Ross was, "contrary to popular funk lore," the first Funkadelic member to wear a diaper in performance, and "one of the first (if not the first) of the Seventies musicians to don a dog collar on-stage."

Ross's history and eccentricities having been established, what to make of a.k.a. detrimental vasoline -- Giant Shirley, his first release since he split from Funkadelic almost a quarter century ago? The results are decidedly mixed, though not for lack of effort. The CD gets off to a promising start with "Green and Yellow Daughter," an understated rocker distinguished by Ross's fragile vocals and twisted hooks. Other highlights include the trancelike "Cry and Show Me," the engaging ballad "Forget Her," and harder numbers such as "Get So Mad," "Feelin' Good," and "It Was (Wars of Armageddon)," on which Ross and his band work up a decent funk lather. But there are also long stretches during which the album meanders along a self-indulgent trail of electronic blips, whooshes, and yelps that recall the free-form jazz explorations undertaken by Spinal Tap when guitarist Nigel Tufnel temporarily left the band during its Smell the Glove tour. Dedicated P-Funk fans may not mind, but for the casual listener, a.k.a. detrimental vasoline -- Giant Shirley is a hit-or-miss proposition.

By Jim Murphy

Paul Kelly
Deeper Water
(Vanguard)

He's dropped his backing band, the Messengers, but Australia's most prolific rock balladeer is still firing off the messages in delightful three- to five-minute bursts. The fare here runs from brooding blues ("Difficult Woman") to jaunty country pop ("Extra Mile") to chiming Afro pop ("Madeleine's Song"). Simon Polinski's Eno-inspired mix infuses these earthy songs with an oddly shimmering energy. Add a liberal dose of pedal steel guitar and the result is an unexpectedly pleasing ambient feel. Kelly continues to develop as a lyricist, and his songs continue to tell the oldest and saddest story men and women know, of love lost and found, of the ruin left in its dark wake. Deeper Water sounds to me like the work of a heartbroken man. A songwriter, in other words, at the top of his game.

By Steven Almond

Various Artists
The History of Space Age Pop, Vol. 1-3
(RCA)
Henry Mancini
The Days of Wine and Roses
(RCA)

Lava lamps live! Lounge music has made a comeback! The quirky instrumental strains of stereophonic Muzak that drove rock and rollers screaming away from their hi-fi consoles are back, swirling on the fringes of the alterna-universe like swizzle sticks in a highball.

The History of Space Age Pop is a three-disc collection of kitschy easy-listening tunes that originated in the mid-1950s as sort of Donna Reed house music and re-emerged in recent years with a new hep-cat moniker: "space-age bachelor pad music." Pioneered by the cheese wizardry of pop avant-guardist Juan Garcia Esquivel, this genre of cocktail lounge background babble explored the exotic eccentricity of combining resonating percussions, blasting brass sections, and perky xylophones, all laden with an acoustic tinge and a Latin beat. Vol. 1: Melodies and Mischief whips the banal into the absurd: Sir Julian's bizarro arrangement of the Duke Ellington standard "Caravan," sort of seventh-inning-stretch organ music on acid; Henry Mancini's samba sendup of "Springtime for Hitler" (from the Mel Brooks film farce The Producers); and Perez Prado's "Why Wait," which sounds like the music Granny Clampett cooked vittles to on The Beverly Hillbillies. Vol. 2: Mallets in Wonderland doesn't maintain the same level of spunk, but cuts such as Bob Thompson's "Ain't We Got Fun," with all of its bells and whistles (literally!), and the Three Suns' accordion-laced take on "Fever" are hallucinating howls. The series concludes with Vol. 3: The Stereo Action Dimension, which explores the Ike era's technological leaps, creating what was then known as the "living stereo" experience. Most of the third disc sounds like variations on the Jeopardy! theme song, but Esquivel's tambourine- and steel-guitar-driven "Carioca" couldn't be any more campy if he had planned it that way (he didn't). But Lee Addeo's "Stumbling" is the real find on Dimension, mixing wooden recorders, Hawaiian guitars, harmonica, and tuned hotel lobby bells (and that's just for starters) into a sprightly shuffle with a walking bass that'll bend your ears like a lame beret that's too tight. As a whole, this hip set turns out to be a swinging gas.

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