Since the recording of Steel Guitar Jazz, the jazz elements of Emmons's playing have been heard sporadically, perhaps no more persuasively than in the Seventies when he recorded with fiddler Buddy Spicher and the late jazz guitarist Lennie Breau. Even today when you listen to Emmons's steel guitar on the new Manhattan Transfer album or in the Everly Brothers road band, it's clear that his virtuosity is too wide-ranging for strict allegiance to country music.
What does one of the contemporary folk scene's leading male voices do when he's run out of things to say? If he's David Wilcox and this album is any indication, he simply turns up the guitars and hopes no one notices. Sporting a hipper hairdo than he's had in years, Wilcox opens the disc with the electric guitar-driven near-bravado of "Show Me the Key." But while the ditty is hummable, the lyrics quickly drift into the touchy-feely netherworld where his muse has been spending way too much time of late. "Glory," in which Wilcox makes a tongue-in-cheek case for the superfluity of living longer than 33 years (the age at which Christ is said to have died), is a lighter confection, but the songwriter reverses his position in the tune's final verse.
Wilcox has dealt with most of the disc's other subjects on previous recordings, and to greater effect. "Right Now" threatens to take off into the humorously noirish territory currently staked out by Squirrel Nut Zippers, but Wilcox's decision to play the narrative straight kills all the fun. "Waffle House" also opens promisingly, but by the end of its first chorus Wilcox has turned it into an angst-ridden investigation into the psychosocial ramifications of his favorite late-night eatery. His singing, which calls to mind James Taylor with a stick of butter in his drawers, doesn't help matters much either.
He still has a poet's eye for imagery, however: In "Spin" he lays the atmosphere on so thick you can practically see the tattoos on the steely-eyed carny who swipes a glance at the "summer legs" of Wilcox's date. But too often Wilcox fairly trips over his erudition; he sounds as if he's trying to pass an essay test without knowing any of the questions. If only his significant other had really run off with that carnival lecher -- at least then Wilcox would have had something interesting to write about.
On-screen, Cop Land is a drab police drama most notable for performances by Robert De Niro and a doughy Sly Stallone. Take the acting, camerawork, dialogue, and gunshots away, however, and you are left with an impressive original score by Howard Shore, the composer who scores David Cronenberg's films, most recently Crash. (Another of his recent scores was for Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, which died at the box office despite a soundtrack whose dark choral and orchestral splendors far surpass John Williams's recent work.)
Cop Land's score is essentially orchestral, but, appropriately for the film's New Jersey setting, Shore makes it sound industrial and evil by emphasizing the brass and unpitched percussion, with low strings offering only occasional respite. Shore adds unsettling synthesized or sampled sounds reminiscent of haunted oil rigs and screeching metal. Bagpipes make brief appearances, but more for percussion than for melody. Shore further disorients the listener by playing spatial tricks with his odd sounds -- hiding them in the resonating distance one moment, moving them front and center the next. In the end, one remembers this score not for themes you can whistle in the shower (there is a repeating brass fanfare that disturbs because of its unwillingness to commit to a major or minor key) but for its metallic and oppressive atmosphere, which is like a bad dream from which you cannot awaken. Shore has taken a feeling and made a valid and freestanding artwork out of it. Most movies should have it so good. Most movies should be so good.