It's hard to fault her for her decision to recruit Moreland. His virtuoso fretwork leaps from an R.E.M.-inspired jangle (on the pretty "Ride") to squalling, haunted-house chords (on the supercharged "Don't Take Me Down") to an ambient shimmer (on the quietly moving "Watching the Water"). Napolitano's songwriting, along with her prominent bass lines, remains distinct and affecting. Some of the time. But for every winning cut ("Billy," her spooky paean to a drag queen), the listener has to slog through a conceptual dud (the pointless and cloying "Dear Marlon Brando"). The album improves with repeated listens but lacks the melodic punch that marked Napolitano's later work with Concrete Blonde. This is probably just fine with her. By her reckoning, those fans who matter will stick with her; the ones who were just along for a "Joey" joy ride are welcome to peel off.

By Steven Almond

Various Artists
It's Hard to Believe: The Amazing World of Joe Meek
(Razor & Tie)

A pioneer of space-age pop, gay British record producer Joe Meek spent his solitary childhood playing with electronics. As an adult he plumbed his technical faculties to produce dozens of unique records in the Fifties and Sixties (twenty of which are compiled on this CD) that reek of his obsessions: outer space, the macabre, and American rock and roll. Employing early synthesizers and audio processing equipment he invented himself, Meek attempted to convey what the future might sound like through his homemade sound effects.

His least successful experiments A those songs most constricted by Top 40 conventions, such as Heinz's 1963 hit "Just Like Eddie" (Cochran, the legendary American rocker) and the naughty "Chick a 'Roo" (1960), sung by bodybuilder Ricky Wayne A are mildly entertaining kitsch; only Glenda Collins's "Something I've Got to Tell You" (1966), a melodramatic slice of girl-groupish angst with lyrics that beg a gay reading ("There's something I've got to tell you, baby / Something's giving me hell, baby"), transcends the genre.

But Meek's imagination runs wild with his instrumentals. Inspired by the 1962 launch of the world's first telecommunications satellite, the Tornados' "Telstar" melds all of Meek's trademarks A eerie electronic organ, galloping percussion, atmospheric sound effects A into a minisymphony that still sounds otherworldly today. Earlier, Meek responded to the space race with a 1960 promotion-only album titled I Hear a New World, credited to the Blue Men. The two Blue Men tracks featured here stand light-years ahead of the work of mood instrumentalists such as Esquivel and also reveal much about Meek himself. The inhabitants of his stereo fantasy are the Saroos, "rather sad people . . . cut off from the rest of the moon . . . they live and love each other but never leave the valley, for surely they would die." They're sustained by the Bublight, "a wonderful sight . . . it casts a magic spell . . . and safeguards them from evil."

Meek's personality is further exposed in 1966's "It's Hard to Believe It," in which singer Glenda Collins complains about the arms race, world hunger, and general social fuckedup-edness, insisting, with a conspiratorial tone in her voice, that creatures live on the moon. The following year, while obviously teetering on the brink, Meek crossed over the line separating genius from madness, plagued by lawsuits, loneliness, barbiturates, and little blue men. In 1967, eight years to the day after his idol Buddy Holly died, Meek shot and killed his elderly landlady during a schizophrenic episode, then committed suicide. Two years later astronauts discovered no life when they walked on the moon. Meek would have found it hard to believe.

By Jeffery Kennedy

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