Kristin Hersh
Strange Angels

Although not at all revolutionary, Throwing Muses created a distinct form of postmodern rock, full of propulsive bass lines, hypnotic guitars, and abrupt instrumental redirections. The band hit a high point with 1989's Hunkpapa, then the original lineup began to fall apart, most notably when Tanya Donelly departed to work with the Breeders and later to form Belly. The subsequent lineup shifts didn't much matter, though; Throwing Muses always came down to the songwriting and voice of Kristin Hersh. (They finally broke up last year.)

Hersh may have dominated her old band, but Strange Angels, her second mostly acoustic solo album, shows that her collaborators played significant roles. Hersh's writing hasn't been drained of any of its strengths; she manages to be both angular and melodious, and her lyrics reveal odd moments of contradiction, playfulness, and disassociation. But in this stripped-down setting -- even more spare than her solo debut, 1994's Hips and Makers -- there's not enough to compensate for the loss of the power of a full band.

Keeping a listener's attention without much more than an acoustic guitar is a big order, which is why a lot of unplugged concerts don't hold up once you get past the novelty of seeing the musicians sitting down. In contrast, somebody such as Ani DiFranco, who spent years and years touring with only a drummer behind her, has thoroughly learned how to fill the spaces in her songs by making her guitar do more than one thing at a time.

Hersh, though, mostly just picks or strums her smart songs, sometimes augmented by piano, cello, or atmospheric background vocal, but ultimately she doesn't provide a great deal of variety in sound and tempo. Still, these are awfully smart songs, delivered in her powerful, nasal, love-it-or-leave-it voice. Even with the recent commercial proliferation of female singer-songwriters, Hersh continues to hold her own ground -- a place she's kept since the formation of the Muses in 1984. She's not confessional, she's not bad-girl slutty, she's not (exceptionally) angry. She can capture a brief, sweet image ("A hot shower on a hot day/Water hangs in the air like you stayed," she sings on "Heaven") or offer an evocative, disturbing one (on "Stained" she sings that she's "stained under my nails and down my back"). The stories are like collages, flashing in bits and pieces, and they bounce across the melodies in unexpected ways.

The adventurous folk-rocker Joe Henry helped Hersh produce Strange Angels. Maybe next time around she'll invite a few others along for the ride.

-- Theresa Everline

Ray of Light

Madonna's new Ray of Light finds the Material Girl on the move. Musically she's delving further into electronica. Lyrically she's abandoned celebrations of self and sex for a more cosmic and spiritual perspective informed by her motherhood.

The dirty little secret about Ray of Light is that it's two different albums. One is a seven-song set Madonna co-wrote with Patrick Leonard (a major collaborator on 1986's True Blue, 1989's Like a Prayer, and the 1990 Dick Tracy soundtrack, whose contributions have petered out in recent years) and Rick Nowels (best-known for superintending Belinda Carlisle's solo career and co-writing Celine Dion's "Falling into You"). Madonna's voice is stronger here, thanks perhaps to her vocal training for her role in Evita, and it works to the benefit of these songs, which balance the Teutonic alienation of 1992's Erotica and the radiance of 1994's Bedtime Stories. "Little Star" is an ode to her daughter that nicely echoes "Lucky Star." "Sky Fits Heaven" reworks the melody of "Like a Prayer" and throws in a frisky drum break to good effect. Though the lyrics aspire to a simplicity that sometimes comes off as simple-mindedness, the collaborations with Leonard and Nowels are mature and textured, closer in spirit to Bjsrk's 1997 Homogenic than to the dance-pop with which Madonna has made her mark. "Frozen," the album's lead single, is the weakest song of the bunch, the one with the laziest melody and the least impressive use of electronics. And it's not bad at all.

But it's on the other half of Ray of Light, which comprises six songs co-written with remix godfather William Orbit (Peter Gabriel, the Cure), that Madonna really shines. Orbit, who remixed Madonna's "I'll Remember" in 1994, refuses to let electonics substitute for songcraft, and the tunes he helped create are sturdy structures that could be successfully realized as folk, rock, or pop. "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" not only has an irresistible melody, it also manages to move from patches of near-silence to clangorous pop in the span of minutes. The exuberant "Ray of Light" is almost as good. The Madonna/Orbit songs dip into psychedelia, stand firm against beats-per-minute backgrounds, and even try to get a piece of the rock -- "Swim" and "Candy Perfume Girl" open with nuanced guitar that wouldn't be out of place on the alternative charts. And then there's the album's stark closer, "Mer Girl," a nightmarish fantasy in which Madonna revisits one of her favorite themes -- her truncated relationship with her mother. As Madonna approaches 40, Ray of Light lives up to its name, and proves that there's plenty of life left in the old girl yet.  

-- Ben Greenman

Ty Tabor
Moonflower Lane
(Metal Blade)

Texas's melodic metal heroes King's X may be the most beautiful losers on the planet. Through seventeen years and seven albums together, guitarist Ty Tabor, bassist Doug Pinnick, and drummer Jerry Gaskill have refined and reinvented their smooth, progressive rock, examining love, life, and the afterlife with rapturous joy and searching doubt. Critics have mostly thrown bouquets their way, and the band's fervent worldwide fan base has increased with each new offering. Yet King's X still remains trapped in an odd bubble of obscurity, largely unheard by the record-buying masses.

Tabor has written many of the band's singles -- "Goldilox," "Summerland," and "Black Flag" -- and the subtle merging of hook-laden pop, psychedelia, and metal found on his Moonflower Lane makes a strong bid for a mainstream listenership. This is technically the guitarist's second solo album, but it actually consists of only four new cuts, plus six reworked songs that first appeared on Naomi's Solar Pumpkin, a limited-run independent CD Tabor released via the Internet in July 1997. Alan Doss of Galactic Cowboys is the key sideman here, playing drums throughout the record and sharing organ and percussion duties with Tabor. Guests with more limited roles include the Cowboys' Monthy Colvin and Atomic Opera's Ben Huggins on background vocals, cellist Frank Hart, and Tabor's teenage son Josh on French horn. But Tabor is the main ingredient, producing and playing almost everything himself.

His recurrent lyrical themes of love, faith, summer, and sensory overload are all in attendance, along with his signature Beatles and Badfinger influences and the usual incisive, minor-chord revelations about Christianity. The ebullient opener "I Do" is an energized, life-affirming celebration of good fortune set to a lilting pop waltz, while "Live in Your House" is one of many ethereal, spiritual tunes about keeping one's eyes on the heavenly prize amid the conflicts and distractions that exist on Earth.

For those who can't quite stomach happy metal, there is also "The Truth," with talkative drums and multilayer harmonies augmenting Tabor's skewering of what he terms "Church of the Hair" televangelists.

Tabor also examines the dank corners of human existence and the trap of a wholly inner life on "The Island Sea," singing, "Inside my window, I imagine I'm a man/And I am free/And I am cool, and I'm not me/The needle doesn't hurt, it doesn't kill/It doesn't steal/It doesn't feel, and I don't bleed."

Those expecting to hear Tabor's customary supersonic guitar noodling may be disappointed, although his fluid, expressionist playing is exceptional at any volume. He has never been comfortable with the hard-rock guitar-god tag anyway, and though he does burn a few good solos here, Moonflower Lane makes a case for tranquillity as the key to enlightenment.

-- Robin Myrick

(Thrill Jockey)

Drummer Max Roach once defined jazz as "a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience.... Everybody's allowed to be out front and supportive during a composition. Everybody's free." By Roach's definition Tortoise would be a premier jazz outfit, and in the spirit of the genre, TNT makes for an excellent -- if not very obvious -- jazz offering.

A leap beyond last year's Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the Chicago-based sextet's new album has more in common with late-Sixties and early-Seventies jazz on the Impulse label than it does with indie rock, prog rock, or even so-called postrock. Like vanguard recordings by Impulse artists such as Roach, John and Alice Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders, TNT challenges listeners with compositional complexities but never denies the humanity at its core. It feels like a group of free spirits layering digitized data over primitive memory; like free jazz, it tumbles, spins, and spits with passion.

The disc opens with the title cut, which immediately brings Roach to mind. As Jeff Parker picks a sparse guitar line, drummer John Herndon dances around the melody with a battery of percussive rolls and splashes that may have been inspired by Roach's classic Percussion Bitter Sweet. After the drums and guitar lock into step, bassist Douglas McCombs and a trombone and bassoon slide in to claim ascendancy. From there the group shuffles toward an anticlimax that eventually peters out.  

The rest of the material (eleven cuts in all) is similarly understated and ambitious, and the players seem both deferential and confident. Like Alice Coltrane at her most restrained, Tortoise seamlessly collages elements and combines influences with a nod to the past and a step toward the future. On songs such as "Swing from the Gutters," "I Set My Face to the Hillside," and "Jetty," the band manages to reference the aforementioned jazz giants, as well as call to mind minimalist composer Steve Reich, soundtrack impresario Ennio Morricone, producer/provocateur Jim O'Rourke, and (fill in the blank with the latest drum and bass sensation), all while sounding completely fresh. In 1998 that's a noteworthy accomplishment. (P.O. Box 476794, Chicago, IL 60647)

-- John Lewis

Dock Boggs
Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings 1927-1929

Though he's been dead since 1971, Dock Boggs is having a good year. Last spring ultra-erudite rock critic Greil Marcus made a big fuss over Boggs -- a folk banjo player who labored for 30 years in Kentucky coal mines and was a relic even when he was rediscovered in the folk revival of the Sixties -- in Invisible Republic, a book about The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan's legendary 1967 sessions with the Band. Also last year two Boggs compositions, "Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues," were featured on the Grammy-winning reissue of Harry Smith's landmark Anthology of American Folk Music. Now John Fahey's Revenant label has released Country Blues, a collection of all known Boggs recordings and bonus tracks by Bill and Hayes Shepherd, other practitioners of the eastern Kentucky mountain style. With a lavish 64-page booklet and wildly eclectic liner notes by Marcus (who is no doubt furious that a typo renders Alexander Pope's name as "Alexander Poe"), this is a welcome set. There's much of technical interest in the music; blues fans can compare Boggs's picking style to that of contemporaries such as Clarence Ashley and later popularizers like Doc Watson. But the real story here is in the songs, which are some of the bleakest folk blues you're ever likely to hear. Filled with tales of hard living, lost love, and equivocal salvation, Country Blues is like the prototype of Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, and it still has the power to bewitch 70 years after its creation. (P.O. Box 198732, Nashville, TN 37219-8732)

-- Ben Greenman

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