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Richard Thompson
You? Me? Us?
(Capitol)
Linda Thompson
Dreams Fly Away
(Hannibal)

This is certainly the first Richard Thompson album to carry a title that might fit a Meg Ryan movie, but don't expect You? Me? Us? to do anywhere near the business that a celluloid puffball by America's Sweetheart would. Unfortunately, this double disc doesn't deserve to be the one that once and for all breaks Thompson out of his perennial cult status.

The nineteen-cut opus is divided into two distinct halves: "Voltage Enhanced" (i.e., electric); and "Naked" (i.e., acoustic), with two of the songs appearing on both sets. And the album does live up to the minimum requirements expected of Thompson. There are the great man's heat-lightning guitar licks and doleful vocals, along with specimens from his various thematic templates: sad-voiced ballads, ruminations on death, exuberant reels, really long sad-voiced ballads. Most of the work here, though, rarely surprises, in the way the best of Thompson does. Almost everything on You? sounds like a rehash of an older, better cut.

Of course, it doesn't help that the bitter and pensive mood discernible in so many of these tunes is almost oppressively rote, with lyrical images including razors, barbed wire, ghosts, cold, knives, and compliments that kill. Maybe Thompson, like John Hiatt, is now so enmeshed in domestic bliss that he has to summon the muse rather than draw from recent experience. That's fine, but You? Me? Us? makes it awfully hard to preach Thompson's genius in the Nineties.

Thompson's ex-wife and former creative partner Linda's talent is similarly dormant. She hasn't sung a note since 1988, when she was stricken by a psychological dilemma in which, she explains in the liner notes of the collection Dreams Fly Away, "you open your mouth and nothing happens." Eleven of the disc's twenty cuts are pulled from the decade she spent collaborating with Richard, during which they turned out some classic albums (including 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and 1982's Shoot Out the Lights). By virtue of her extraordinary vocals, songs like "Walking on a Wire" (heard here in an alternate studio version) and "For Shame of Doing Wrong" are hers as surely as they're his.

Some of the other tracks -- including those from her lone solo album, 1985's One Clear Moment -- are much less darkly striking than those high points, borne of marital tension. Still, Linda Thompson (now Kenis) does herself proud with littleknown gems such as "Talking Like a Man," the previously unreleased "Insult to Injury," and the relatively happy-go-lucky "One Clear Moment." This effort to bring the spotlight to an artist too often forgotten is both timely and overdue. If she never sings again, Dreams Fly Away will be a more than honorable last offering.

-- Rickey Wright

Marshall Crenshaw
Miracle of Science
(Razor & Tie)

Marshall Crenshaw has been essaying masterful pop-bliss albums for so long now that his latest -- his first set of original material in five years -- has the distinct ring of formula. It's a hell of a formula, though, one that stretches farther than the John-Paul jangle of most popsters, from the bluesy swagger of "Who Stole That Train" (a Ray Price obscurity) to the taut crunch of "Starless Summer Sky." You also get a fine cover of Dobie Gray's soul standard "The 'In' Crowd," as well as a heartbreaking version of Grant Hart's "Twenty-Five Forty-One." When ex-HYsker DY drummer Hart wrote the song back in '88, it was meant to metaphorically memorialize that band's salad days and eventual demise. Crenshaw, however, turns it into a lament of anthemic proportions -- sweet, like the first taste of love, bitter, like the last drop of betrayal.

-- John Floyd

Tricky
Tricky Presents Grassroots
(Payday)

As trip-hop's first pop star (at home in England, at least), Tricky has done more than anyone else to help invent and shape that recently formed genre. More than the slightly vanilla work of his fellow trip-hoppers in Portishead, Tricky's dark, urban escapades -- as heard most recently on last year's magnificent Maxinquaye album -- mesh beats and sampling with mood and melody in a way that reveals the influence of, and an essential kinship with, the most adventurous American hip-hop.

Before he releases a genuine followup to Maxinquaye later this year, Tricky diverges a bit from his rising-career path with two sideline releases. First, the album Nearly God (which was also the artist's pseudonym during the project) is a sort-of compilation linked by Tricky's production, with his songs performed by Bjsrk, Terry Hall, and other singers.

Tricky's second project, a five-song EP entitled Tricky Presents Grassroots, finds the rapper/producer/musician in a New York state of mind, employing hip-hop and R&B performers in an apparent effort to get back to black-music basics. But while the street raps of the Hillfiguzes ("Heaven, Youth, Hell") and the crooning of Stephanie Cooke ("Live with Yo Self") are clearly more conventional than Tricky's prior concoctions, Grassroots is no bid at urban radio play. As always, Tricky asks much more of hip-hop and R&B than most. Rather than create tracks with lazy loops and beats, he challenges our ears with densely layered mixes and thick atmospherics, such as on the stark, chilling soul of "Devil's Helper" and the parched-mouth toasting of "Tricky Kid." If Grassroots is Tricky's stab at traditional urban forms, well, he fails. Lucky for us the guy's too creative for his own good.

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