-- Raymond Tuttle

k.d. lang
(Warner Bros.)

Yeah, yeah, the singer, not the song, and all that. I couldn't agree more. And there's no question that lang has a set of pipes for the ages. Stand her on a street corner during a tornado warning and her lungs alone could save every trailer-park resident within ten miles. But ever since the folks at the Grammys validated her overtly "mature" work with a couple of statuettes a few years back, she simply hasn't been all that much fun to be around. Not even this disc's playful concept -- a collection of tunes casually linked by a cigarette/smoking motif -- can shake the seriousness out of her.

I'm all for radical revisions of familiar tunes, but I can't pretend that I've been waiting breathlessly for a sophisticated reading of Steve Miller's "The Joker," and I'm betting that not many others have been either. And while the idea of lang warbling "Theme from The Valley of the Dolls" is a delicious one, the execution reminded me of Maureen McGovern, a performer I was hoping would not cross my mind again until I was in the grave. All in all, drag is a pleasant listen. There's nothing on it that will cause you to use your index fingers for earplugs, and lang's cover of the David Wilcox ditty "My Old Addiction" is quite lovely. But the CD as a whole left me pining for the days when k.d. was still channeling Patsy Cline.

-- Michael Roberts

Too Far to Care
Old 97's

It's not surprising that the Texas-bred, Chicago-fed Old 97's have found their following at the rock end of the alt-country scene: Singers Murry Hammond and Rhett Miller don't sound much like Porter Wagoner, or even Gram Parsons. But they do bear more than a glancing vocal resemblance to Red Rockers, those earnest late-Eighties new wavers. And Too Far's roots-showcase guest shot isn't from Ralph Stanley or Emmylou Harris but Exene Cervenkova, erstwhile singer from X. Despite a certain anti-authoritarian streak in the lyrics, Old 97's represent the fresh face of the No Depression crowd -- not cutesy, exactly, but not on the emotional nod like Son Volt either, and unafraid of their own hook power. "Curtain Calls," for instance, would've sounded great on college radio in 1985, and probably does now. The Dallas quartet sticks to the same two or three mostly strolling tempos over thirteen cuts but manages enough amusing and/or affecting melodies and sentiments ("Time is on my bad side") to get by.

Still, aside from "Curtain Calls," nothing hits as hard as the stubborn lament of "Victoria" on 1995's Wreck Your Life, and the 97's sound too darn chipper to pull off the broken-man shtick on song after song. While this disc makes a decent argument for why the 97's shouldn't be kicked off the stage, it hardly burns the place down.

-- Rickey Wright

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