Jeff Buckley
Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
(Columbia)

Late singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley was a rarity in this cynical age, an artist who wasn't too cool to be himself. He had a yearning, confessional style and an uncommon amount of humility and passion. The quavering vocals, bold musical colors, and emotionally naked lyrics of his successful 1993 debut, Grace, clashed with the detached, anti-pop climate of the time. In preparation for his second album, Buckley recorded three sets of studio demos with ex-Television guitarist Tom Verlaine producing, then migrated to Memphis, where he was set to re-record many of the tracks with Grace producer Andy Wallace. But on May 29, 1997, Buckley drowned during an impromptu swim in the treacherous Mississippi River; his band was flying from New York to start the new sessions.

In the year since his death, disbelief has softened to acceptance, but the sting of a stolen promise lingers in the posthumous release of Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. Though it is not the record Buckley had planned to make in Memphis, it is a stunningly good compromise. Compiled by Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, the double-disc set is indeed bittersweet, but it's also vivid and muscular, and true to his empathy for those at the wrong end of the emotional food chain.

Wallace's mixes of the tracks recorded with Verlaine dominate disc one, a solid rock testament to Buckley's embrace of love, freedom, and fatalism. "Leave your spirit genocide" and "Throw off your shame or be a slave to the system," Buckley rails on "The Sky Is a Landfill," chiding those who would rather "take another drag" of conformity than go their own way. "Feel no shame for what you are" he advises in the swirling, Eastern-flavored "New Year's Prayer," advocating self-emancipation and challenging: "Leave your office/Run past your funeral/Leave your home, car/Leave your pulpit," and "Join us in the streets where we don't belong." In "Opened Once," he ponders his place in life, singing "I am a railroad track abandoned/With the sunset/ Forgetting I ever happened." And on "Morning Theft," though he is speaking about a girl, his soothing take on healing and grief is prophetic. "Time takes care of the wounds, so I can believe," he assures, though he wistfully admits, "There's no relief in this/I miss my beautiful friend."

The second disc offers a look at Buckley deep in the throes of creativity, especially in six four-track recordings made during his last months. From the joyous "Your Flesh Is So Nice" to the earnest "Jewel Box," these unrestrained, homespun tracks are alive with wordplay and the dry clickity-click of a guitar pick across steel strings.

In the big picture of rock history, Buckley is one more soul in the lamentable parade of talented young voices silenced too soon, another sad reminder of the randomness of circumstance. While death may now illuminate the effort, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk confirms that the resonance of Buckley's work owes no debt to his passing.

-- Robin Myrick

Garnett Silk
Journey
(VP)

Garnet Silk's meteoric rise to fame came to a sudden halt in December 1994 when the 28-year-old Jamaican singer/songwriter and his mother died in a fire in her home. In a few short years, Silk, known for hits such as "Hello Mama Africa" and "Zion in a Vision," had become a household name to reggae-music lovers worldwide. (A household name, but one that was misspelled. In an interview shortly before his death, he expressed his irritation at the insistence of his label and the music press on spelling his first name with two t's.) Many called him the next Bob Marley.

Instead of embracing the gun and girl themes that had come to dominate Jamaica's dancehalls, Silk directed dancehall reggae back to its roots, to spiritual, reality-based, love-filled lyrics. At the time of his death, this musical messenger was one of the performers most in demand on the island and had recently signed with Big Beat/ Atlantic Records.

Journey is a collection of songs Silk recorded for Delroy "Callo" Collins, one of the many producers he worked with in his short career (Silk first recorded in 1984 but didn't see the release of his debut album until 1992). The album also contains excerpts from interviews aired on Jamaica's IRIE-FM and JBC Television. The disc opens with news of Silk's death; a broadcaster reads, "The two bodies that were recovered from the scene had their arms entwined around each other, which has left the impression that Mr. Silk died hugging his mother." This moving announcement leads into "Mama," Silk's stirring tribute to his mother: "Oh Mama/I know you're my shining star/Stay by me/Never go too far."

The thirteen-track set -- featuring some of Jamaica's most respected musicians, namely drummer Desi Jones, bassist and guitarist Glen Browne, keyboardist Robbie Lyn, and horn player Dean Fraser -- includes Silk's first release, 1985's "Problems Everywhere," and also "See Bimbo Ya!!!" Both were recorded early in his career when he was a DJ-rapper known as DJ Bimbo. Silk was proficient at voicing lyrics over driving rhythms, but he really shone as a singer. The rest of Journey showcases what the sweet-voiced vocalist did best: deliver sincere lyrics in a quavering tenor that could melt even the coldest heart.

-- Sara Gurgen

John Fogerty
Premonition
(Reprise)

By the time the preeminent Sixties blue-collar rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival acrimoniously disbanded in 1972, lead singer and songwriter John Fogerty had unfortunately signed away a large portion of his creative output. In order to get out of his contract with Fantasy Records, he had to relinquish all publishing rights to the songs he wrote between 1968 and 1971, including all nine of CCR's Top 10 hits. For the past two decades, rather than continue to pad Fantasy's pockets with the fruits of his artistry, Fogerty steadfastly refused to perform any of the songs he signed away. But after rediscovering his "spiritual ownership of the songs" -- reportedly with a bit of coaxing by cronies Bob Dylan and George Harrison -- Fogerty has reclaimed, at least morally, both his catalogue and his legacy. (In the irony department, Fogerty's former CCR bandmates, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford, are touring this summer under the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited, with a hired hand tackling lead vocals. Fogerty is rightfully pissed, and has called the charade "tasteless and tacky, like an Elvis impersonation." He lost a lawsuit attempting to prevent their use of the name.)

Legal wranglings aside, Fogerty is back with a would-be greatest hits album, Premonition, his first live solo album; it handily captures the spirit of his swamp-boogie days. The eighteen-song set, taped on a Burbank soundstage last December, finds Fogerty in top form, his voice rich with the swagger and grit of a man making up for lost time. The album is packed with obligatory CCR killers -- "Born on the Bayou," "Fortunate Son," "Green River," and "Proud Mary" -- plus tracks from 1985's Centerfield and last year's Grammy-winning Blue Moon Swamp. (Fogerty does toss in a new song, the title track.) But what's most effective about Premonition isn't so much the veteran rocker's enthusiasm for reliving his glory days but the nostalgia factor, a ploy that worked for Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. In Fogerty's case, it's been a long time coming. This material is eternal, and note-for-note re-creations of classics like "Who'll Stop the Rain" are hard to fault. Fogerty clearly owns these songs; Premonition proves it.

-- George Pelletier

The Royal Pendletons
Oh Yeah, Baby
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

Gloriously inept, fiercely rocking, and with a sensibility derived from primitive punk rockers from the past, the Royal Pendletons may be the greatest garage-rock band on the planet. Well, if not the greatest, definitely the most fun: The New Orleans quartet's debut album, Oh Yeah, Baby, is a relentless, rollicking fourteen-song stomper, driven by the minimalist Farfisa flourishes of George Thomas Oliver and the crude percussive pounding of King Louie Bankston. Pendleton originals (most written by vocalists/guitarists Michael Hurtt and J. Matt Uhlman) are masterfully paired with assaultive covers ranging from the obscure James Brown instrumental "Cross Firing" to ? and the Mysterians' "Hangin' on a String" and Earl King's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights." The band's own songs fit so well into the mix that you'll swear Hurtt's angry, growling "Game of Love" was actually retrieved from a lost Sixties single, or that you've heard their reverb-drenched "Mecca" on a vintage surf-instrumental collection. It's a tribute to the band's intoxicating genius that, whether ripping through their own stuff or wailing on a found oddity, the Pendletons' singularly sloppy stamp is all over Oh Yeah, Baby.

-- John Floyd

The Spinanes
Arches and Aisles
(Sub Pop)

Arches and Aisles, the third album in seven years from the Spinanes, heralds many changes for the onetime indie-rock duo. Drummer Scott Plouf ended his collaboration with vocalist/guitarist Rebecca Gates in 1996 for a regular gig with the band Built to Spill, leaving Gates to continue the Spinanes saga (and name) as a solo act. She seems to have taken full advantage of her newfound independence, moving to Chicago from Portland and taking her music to a more adventurous level by using a rotating cast of back-up musicians to decorate her usually sparse soundscapes. While earlier Spinanes duo albums suffered from a sameness of moody acoustic atmospherics and a dearth of hooks, Arches and Aisles is more expansive, even if the few songs that really stand out do so because of the talented musicians Gates brought in to bolster her own performance.

Particularly conspicuous is drummer and keyboardist John McEntire, of postmodern progressive rock outfits Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Red Krayola, and the Sea and Cake. His bubbly intro to "Kid in Candy" is rhythmic and melodious; beautiful layers of droning synthesizers hum in the background like ambient wind. McEntire's influence surfaces again in the dense overlay of guitars and organ melodies on "Reach v. Speed," which also features the mellow vocals of Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop.

Although both of these songs bear the stamp of the Sea and Cake, this is still a Spinanes record, and the other songs have a tough act to follow. Taken on their own merits, though, they are a step up the evolutionary ladder from previous Spinanes material. Gates has clearly made an attempt to diversify the sonic environments that reflect her varying moods, be they perky and playful ("Sucker's Trial") or slow and contemplative ("Greetings from the Sugar Lick"), making for the most musically diverse Spinanes record to date.

The Spinanes' duo music always took a back seat to Gates's breathy yet powerful vocals and her bitter lyrics. It's no wonder then that the most lyrically effective songs are the most musically low-key. "Heisman Stance" closes the album with a simple acoustic guitar and lyrics not far removed from Gates's characteristic themes. "Locked in a Heisman stance/And I don't trust a thing/Why don't you prove me wrong?" she sings, in a hushed, silky voice, offering a refreshing hint of hope in contrast to her standard fatalistic take on men.

-- Hans Morgenstern

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