Elegantly Wasted
INXS
(Mercury)

It's sort of endearing the way Michael Hutchence thinks he's still sexy, kinda like that fading jock who gets all decked out for a sandlot game and insists on hitting cleanup. The ball may not carry as far as it once did, but the swing's always good for a show. And on this, INXS's tenth studio album, Hutchence and his mates lack nothing in swing. The frontman is still swaggering around basket-first, growling in a manner meant to suggest insatiable lust and pouting for his closeup. The Farriss brothers continue to build elaborate funk backdrops from the thinnest of Motown melodies. And Kirk Pengilly is still waiting for that saxophone solo he was promised back when "Never Tear Us Apart" broke.

He'll have to exercise some patience. Elegantly Wasted is another album full of party music for the not especially thoughtful. Which is fine. INXS has always been about moving butts, after all, despite occasional pretensions to the contrary. The title track, coming to a radio near you, is a case in point. It's basically "Need You Tonight" all over again. Same chunky percussion, same simpering vocal line, same chord progression. "Show Me (Cherry Baby)" boasts a flashy hook and an orchestral vapidity worthy of Simple Minds, and "Don't Lose Your Head" provides Hutchence the bluesy showcase he needs in order to cope with not being Mick Jagger.

More interesting are the ballads. "Searching" veers pleasingly toward soul, with Andrew Farriss's Hammond organ emulating the whacked-out synth sound of the Seventies. "Everything" is a stylish bit of Eighties dance pop propelled by crisp, swiping guitar. I'm not sure what "We Are Thrown Together" is all about. It opens as a perfectly enchanting acoustic track; Hutchence exercises a rare and winning restraint to match Tim Farriss's quietly strummed accompaniment. But then, well, boys will be boys. And the boys of INXS didn't choose their name just because it makes a cool vanity plate. Soon enough, the beat drops and the organ fills start seeping in and something like an electrified sitar starts yodeling and, well, you know the drill. Another day at the races for Australia's most stubbornly retro sextet.

Hey, life's short. Get yourself some blow. Turn the beeper off. And relive the Eighties before it's too late.

-- Steven Almond

INXS appears Tuesday, September 9, at 8:00 p.m. at Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 95th Ave, 954-741-7300. Tickets are $27.75 and $29.75.

Bad Newz Travels Fast
DJ Pooh
(Da Bomb/Big Beat/Atlantic)

The theme of suicide in pop music goes back at least to "Endless Sleep," a 1958 Top 5 tearjerker by Jody Reynolds ("I joined my baby in her endless sleep"). Rap, which started out mainly as party music in the Seventies, took a while to mine that vein. The Geto Boys did it first and perhaps best with "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," which teamed an obscure Isaac Hayes sample with a piercing look inside the mind of a paranoid protagonist. The resulting track was as touching as it was terrifying.

But you're not paranoid if people really are out to get you. DJ Pooh, the former Ice Cube collaborator who produced and wrote most of Bad Newz, uses the exquisite voice of rapper Kam to give you all the details on "No Idea," a track so compelling it dominates the fourteen others. "Worry myself sick, so I've been tryin' to stay active/But death is looking more and more attractive," Kam intones. The voices of Roger Troutman, the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson, and Shirley Murdoch shape-shift through the mix while a gorgeous backing track bounces quietly beneath. Just as on "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," the music is so ebullient it seems to pull you away from the rapper's precipice, only to focus attention forcefully on the void a moment later. Somewhere in between, we are left to presume, salvation dangles.

In pursuit of that salvation, whether it's the comic relief of "Ebonics" or the desperate delight of the Marvin Gaye-inflected "Who Cares," Pooh constructs a sound that leaves plenty of room for a horde of well-deployed singers, scratchers, and samples. The bass, thick and dripping with funk, squats down and bobs along both sides of a ten-lane highway. It's that wide. While DJ Pooh acknowledges that sometimes there seems nothing left to live for, his music provides one sure reason for listeners to keep moving uncertainly toward the future.

-- Lee Ballinger

Angels -- Voices from Eternity
Joel Cohen/Tod Machover
(Erato)

You've seen them everywhere -- those insipid little angels that Raphael painted, hanging around and looking depressed as they contemplate the eternal celestial. Angels don't need to be sickeningly sweet, though, and movies such as Wings of Desire and Michael have attempted to depict Heaven's flying horde in a less sentimental manner.

So have Bostonians Joel Cohen and Tod Machover on this new CD. It's an unexpected pairing. Cohen is an expert in American and English folksongs and vocal ensemble music from the late Middle Ages. Machover is associated with M.I.T.'s Media Laboratory, and he relentlessly pursues the newest connections between computer technology and music composition and performance. Here Cohen has collected angelically oriented Gregorian chants, Shaker hymns, and other genres of early music and arranged them into a sort of ethereal variety show whose acts include "The Archangel Michael," "The War in Heaven," "Declarations of the Mighty Angels," and "Paradise." Machover uses digital techniques -- sampling, overdubbing, "virtual" instruments, and so on -- to create atmospheric vocal settings. The performers, too numerous to dance on the head of a pin, include Cohen's Boston Camerata, the Boston Shawm and Sackbut Ensemble (those are instruments, not an Irish football team), the Harvard University Choir, and the Youth Pro Musica. This, then, is an early-music CD with an angelic theme and a contemporary twist. It would have been better, though, had the focus been inverted; Machover is a talented and innovative musician, and with more freedom he could have taken a merely pleasant project and made it, well, divine.

-- Raymond Tuttle

drag
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
(Elektra)

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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