The Jesus and Mary Chain
(Sub Pop)

After the listless, largely acoustic misfire Stoned and Dethroned, the Jesus and Mary Chain returns four years later with Munki, a near-perfect mix of Jim and William Reid's long-standing love of gooey pop melodies, boho-chic cynicism, and shrieking, overdriven guitars. Their first effort for Sub Pop, Munki is a masterpiece -- an epic-length assault framed by two soaring versions of the (tongue-in-cheek?) "I Love/Hate Rock 'N' Roll," the kind of anthemic sing-along fuzzball the Reids have knocked out intermittently since their debut single "Upside Down" arrived out of nowhere in 1985. They went on to dabbled with drum-machine metal ("Blues from a Gun"), somber soft-spoken ballads ("Sometimes Always," Stoned's 1994 hit featuring the dreary vocals of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval), and swaggering, sexual drone-un-drang ("Teenage Lust").

A classic singles band, the Mary Chain's longplayers have spanned the gamut between the great -- Psychocandy -- and the grating -- Darklands -- with most of them falling into a formulaic rut of highs and lows. There's a fine album to be assembled from the highs of Automatic and Honey's Dead, for instance, but the singles hodgepodges Barbed Wire Kisses and Hate Rock 'N' Roll stand on their own as testaments to the band's aural and conceptual power.

Munki, however, is remarkable, certainly the first album since Psychocandy to sustain the Reids' brilliance as punk-crazed pop-rock craftsmen, and their most emotionally naked to date. "Birthday" is built around a zooming bass riff borrowed from a dozen Velvet Underground rockers and is beefed up by William Reid's boast "I'm a bad motherfucker now/But I once was cool," as feedback guitar wraps like a flame around his icy vocal. His "Black," meanwhile, is either a masterful shot of his jaded viewpoint ("Nothing here belongs/Nothing here is mine") or a brilliant parody of mopey postmodernists. Either way, the song is the album's gorgeous centerpiece, finding a balance between the Mary Chain's buzz-saw attack of old and their feeble attempt at balladry on Stoned. And within the context of Jim Reid's roaring "Stardust Remedy" and the T. Rex glam-dance confection "Virtually Unreal," not to mention William's menacing "Degenerate," even the return of the terminally dour Hope Sandoval (on "Perfume") is tolerable. That in itself is a remarkable feat, and a sure sign that Munki is an album for the ages.

-- John Floyd

David Cassidy
Old Trick New Dog

Yeah, that David Cassidy, the former teen dream who nearly 30 years ago starred as Keith Partridge on TV's The Partridge Family, a series about a rocking little family "band" that grafted the real-life legacy of the Cowsills onto the prefabricated legacy of the Monkees. The show was a hit, and the "group" -- in truth, only Cassidy and his TV mom/actual stepmom Shirley Jones sang, with the music provided by hired hands -- reeled off a string of Top 40 hits between late 1970 and early 1973. Perhaps you owned their 1970 debut LP The Partridge Family Album, or at least carried your sandwich, apple, and Twinkies to school in a Partridge Family lunch box.

After enjoying some solo success during his Partridge years, Cassidy has since skulked around the pop fringes, releasing an album every so often; in the early Nineties he toured clubs, generating considerable boomer adulation. Anyway, he has always had a sense of humor about his singing career, as evidenced by the titles of some of his records, notably 1975's The Higher They Climb the Harder They Fall, 1992's Didn't You Used to Be ..., and now Old Trick New Dog. The clear, unremarkable voice behind the Partridges' "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted" and Cassidy's own hit cover version of the Association's "Cherish" is now the clear, unremarkable voice behind pallid ballads such as ""You Were the One" and "Sheltered in Your Arms," and connect-the-dots midtempo shuffles like "Let Her Go" and "(Whatever Happened to) Peace, Love & Happiness," the latter two goosed along by a limp hip-hop beat. MOR treacle and drivel mostly, with many of the songs co-written by Cassidy and various industry careerists (hello Simon Climie, who resurfaces ten years after Climie Fisher's hit "Love Changes").

Additionally, Cassidy covers Al Wilson's 1974 "Show and Tell," in the process extracting the soul from the original, and -- shudder -- attempts to reanimate the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You" and "I Woke Up in Love This Morning," burnishing the latter with flecks of electronica. Major mistakes. Oddly, the best song here is the only one written entirely by Cassidy: the album-closing "Ricky's Tune," a slow, affecting, postbreakup lament that ditches the unimaginative percussive programming heard throughout the album for a significantly more effective foundation of acoustic guitar.

-- Michael Yockel

Welcome Back, Zoobombs!
(Emperor Norton)

The promise of this Tokyo band is awesome, as is vividly illustrated by "Highway a Go Go," the first song on Welcome Back, Zoobombs! and one of the most devastating garage-punk numbers ever recorded. It's often been noted that rock's most primal, direct performances transcend verbal communication -- that Little Richard, Hound Dog Taylor, et al. might as well have been speaking Japanese for all the import their specific word choices carried. Well, Zoobombs' vocalist Don Matsuo proves exactly that: He sings in Japanese. But for a rock-versed English-speaker there can be no question of what the song is about: From the feedback whine and evil chuckle of its intro to the frantic, organ-driven momentum of the verse to the relentless guitar-and-drum-crashing, skidding, shouting-and-crashing-again sound of the chorus, it's about rocking -- and rocking hard.

Is it a surprise that Welcome Back, Zoobombs! doesn't achieve such heights again? Not really, considering that "Highway a Go Go"'s most revered antecedents are one-shot deals from bands such as ? and the Mysterians and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The surprise is that it seems they didn't even make an attempt. The rest of the album approaches neither the rude volume nor the fever pitch of "Highway." Most of the other twelve tracks fall, not ineptly, into the crowded category of Jon Spencer/Beck-style blues-rap.

The catchy "Jumbo" is the best of these, featuring a singsong chorus by Zoobombs' female keyboardist, Mattaira. "The Swamp" and "Mojo Man" are more up-tempo, with Matsuo's jarringly staccato vocal barrage providing a brighter point of interest than the band's competent riffing. Zoobombs' workaday mimicry takes a turn for the worse when the band shifts its attention from amped-up four-piece rawk to trendier styles. Looping dirges "Estell" and "Urban Colours" convey little of Beck's endearing playfulness -- though that could just be the language barrier. Matsuo blurts out some stock rock phrases (like "You don't know how much I love you") in the frenetic "Midnight '69," but his broken English -- along with the song's rallying cry of "Sixty-nine!" -- suggest a novelty act better left to a band of lesser abilities. (Emperor Norton Records, 102 Robinson St., Los Angeles, CA 90026.)

-- Adam Heimlich

Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Lucinda Williams's songs have been covered by many of her fans -- Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, to name a few -- but the Lake Charles, Louisiana, native has never been satisfied with a songwriter's vicarious existence. Her twenty-year career has been a travelogue of backwaters, big cities, and regular swipes at fame. From NYC folksinger to twangy L.A. critical darling to the pride of Austin and the conscience of Nashville, Williams developed a strong self-concept and vision with each move. And in her longing voice and unabashedly Southern storytelling, one can see and hear the miles, places, and characters that have populated her life along the way.

The success of 1992's acclaimed Sweet Old World set the stage for another rambling journey in her life, the making of the followup, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The original Austin sessions with her touring band were finished in 1995, but Williams was dissatisfied and decided to recut the whole record with co-producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy in Nashville the next year. Earle left the project near the end, reportedly because of clashes with Williams and/or a scheduling conflict, leaving her to wrap up the album last year in Los Angeles with yet another co-producer, the E Street Band's Roy Bittan.

But whether self-doubt, perfectionism, or prescience caused the record's winding path, Williams ultimately knew best. From the album's first notes we're reminded why she is canonized alongside Chrissie Hynde in the rough, vulnerable, and brutally clever school of songwriting. "Right in Time," "Metal Firecracker," and "Greenville" detail the chivalrous and complicated world of barroom love, sweet and messy as a biker throwing his leather jacket over a puddle of beer and broken glass for his gal. But in Williams's songs, the giddy joy of cranking up ZZ Top and blasting down the highway in the wee hours is fleeting, replaced with drunken guitar players, perpetually borrowed cash, and passing glances that erupt into flying fists.

Some of her subjects don't survive life's slings and arrows, as in "Drunken Angel," where a tormented soul mate dies in his duct-taped shoes: "Blood spilled out of the hole in your heart/Over the strings of your guitar" she sings, recounting the instrument's path through the "worn-down places in the wood/That once that made you feel so good." "Lake Charles" tells of another departed soul, an East Texas lad with his heart and ashes in Louisiana. As she mourns, she wonders, "Did an angel whisper in your ear/And hold you close and take away your fear/In those long first moments?"

The title track is more upbeat, but equally delicate. Childhood hope and discipline fly by the car windows like cornfields and dust; tiny tears drip down a small cheek on the other side of the pane. "There goes the screen door slamming shut/You better do what you're told," she drawls. "When I get back this room better be picked up/Car wheels on a gravel road."

Though her vigilance may have resulted in years of delay and a few bloodied noses, Williams now has the record of her career to show for it.

-- Robin Myrick

Ahmad Jamal

Although Ahmad Jamal's name has been part of the jazz lexicon for more than 40 years, his recorded output over that period is relatively scant. Yet this pianist has shown Viagric staying power, in part thanks to having receiver his props from none other than Miles Davis, but mostly because of a graceful and accessible style and musicality. On his latest release, Nature, Jamal sounds like an artist in the flower of his career, defying (or perhaps ignoring) any notions that significant new jazz can spring only from younger, more market-friendly up-and-comers. Though he may have first arrived in the Sixties, Jamal is still here, creating music that is confident, honest, vibrant, and forever ripe.

Nature features beautiful bookends, opening and closing with very different versions of "If I Find You Again," a Jamal original. His quartet delivers the opening track, and Othello Molineaux's steel drums carry the arresting melody with a tropical feel. Jamal solos and punctuates with authority, summoning darker tones from the piano's lower registers as the bass and drums drive along at a medium pace. "Like Someone in Love" and "The End of a Love Affair" are songs as bright and cheerful as the field of sunflowers on the album cover. Jamal's flourishing, refined playing elevates them, though jazz skeptics and purists alike might label them lounge music. But the up-tempo scorcher "Devil's in My Den," with Jamal's fellow sexagenarian Stanley Turrentine sitting in on sax, should silence such critics quickly. Same goes for "Fantastic Vehicle," a standard jazz structure with a persistent vamp and animated soloing from Jamal and Molineaux.

The reprise of "If I Find You Again" is a far more melancholy rendering than the opener. This take is a piano and steel drum duet; Jamal and Molineaux share the melody in a quieter but freer setting. The tempo changes frequently, though the song remains subdued and contemplative throughout, in the mode of Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It's Jamal at his best, expertly using space and silence to express a distilled elegance.

-- Chris Duffy


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