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It Had to Happen
James McMurtry
(Sugar Hill Records)

In 1995 two songs came out that were sharp expressions of the burden that the freewheeling Sixties left its children: the Charlie Sexton Sextet's "Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes" and James McMurtry's "Fuller Brush Man." McMurtry continues to wrestle with the voice of the kids who grew up knowing just a little bit too much to believe in the lies of old poetry on It Had to Happen, a superb slice of American roots/bar-band storytelling that is McMurtry's first release since being dropped by Columbia last year.

McMurtry is a songwriter's songwriter, unobtrusively literate yet possessed of common experience, insightful without being pedantic, and subtle without becoming precious. Rootless but enduring, his characters cycle between ennui and effort, nostalgia and nihilism. Their lack of inspiration, fortunately, is countered by their creator's uncanny melodic knack and his quirky sense of syncopation.

Throughout Happen McMurtry explores his favorite themes -- people on the fringes ("Paris"), people haunted by the past ("12 O'Clock Whistle"), and those perched precariously between present and future ("Sixty Acres"). The existentialism of distance, another favorite theme, comes around again on "For All I Know," as McMurtry meets an old object of desire. "Last time I saw you/It could've been Christmas Eve/It could've been someone's birthday/It could've been make believe" he sings to this friend, who now exists completely out of context.

But McMurtry is more than a wrung-out hipster pissing on everybody else's parade. He presents his observations like Mark Twain, without sanctimony or judgment and with a thin but never absent thread of humor. It's a wit that lends itself to his succinct descriptions, as in "Peter Pan," when he sets the stage for the eternal man-boy with "Beer cans to the ceiling/Ashtray on the floor/Laundry on the sofa/Need I say more." Pete may be mired in an eternal never-never land, but he still dreams: "Let's go chase tornadoes/ Just me and you/Don't often catch 'em/But man when you do." Despite his jaded eye, McMurtry finds such dreaming as inevitable as the title of his new album implies.

-- Matt Weitz

El Tango
Gidon Kremer/Astor Quartet
(Nonesuch)

Should it be a surprise that musicians from Eastern Europe excel at the Argentine tango? Perhaps not -- political and sexual repression are close relatives. The tango is a stylized dance about people flirting with surrender but never consummating their desires, always holding themselves back. Heterodox thinkers from the former Soviet Union had to hold themselves back too, and sometimes they engaged their totalitarian regimes in a sad but passionate dance that expressed the intensity of their love-hate relationship.

Last year Russian violinist Gidon Kremer and colleagues from either side of the Iron Curtain's bleeding rags released an intriguing CD called Hommage a Piazzolla. Not the first classical musicians to cover the work of modern tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla (and probably not the last -- 1997 has been an almost ridiculously rich year for this idea), the Astor Quartet is nevertheless the best to do so since Piazzolla himself. No sophomore slump plagues this follow-up CD. To keep the mixture fresh, Kremer has added the Italian cabaret singer Milva, guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad (playing at Festival Miami this week; see "Calendar," page 34), and even Brazilian composer/singer/guitarist Caetano Veloso, who recites words by Jorge Luis Borges on the title track.

Consistent with the subtext of repression, Soviet exiles Giya Kancheli and Leonid Desyatnikov have contributed "Instead of a Tango" and "My Happiness" respectively, and another track ("Los Mareados") was composed by Juan Carlos Cobian. This is Piazzolla's show, though, in spirit if not all in flesh, and it moves from light to dark, from the effervescent "Revirado" to the furious fatalism of "Michelangelo 70."

Tango on, but remember: That rose in your mouth has thorns.
-- Raymond Tuttle

Group Dance Epidemic
Brave Combo
(Rounder Records)

What Pavement said about Smashing Pumpkins was mean but true: Too much popular music is bereft of purpose. Most recordings are neither enjoyable enough to qualify as real entertainment nor enlightening enough to be particularly good art. So when Brave Combo advertises its music as "Fun and Functional" on the cover of the new album Group Dance Epidemic, it's wise to take note.

Group Dance Epidemic is Brave Combo's response to the dual plagues afflicting dancing these days: On one side there are the undisciplined gyrations and moshing of youth dance, and on the other the remedial stepping of the electric slide and macarena. Brave Combo is out to remind us how fun formal dance steps can be when they're named things like "The Hokey Pokey," "Hand Jive," and "The Hustle." To help us relearn the moves, Group Dance Epidemic's CD booklet includes photos and instructions for each dance, in place of the lyrics (who listens to words when they're dancing, anyway?).

Of course, this is Brave Combo -- Denton, Texas's best, and only, new wave polka/world-music sextet. This is a group that recorded "Stairway to Heaven" as a swing tune, "Hava Nagila" as a twist, and "Satisfaction" as a cha-cha. It's not surprising then that Brave Combo's take on popular group dance would be dizzyingly dynamic and eclectic.

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