After the Fall
Mary Coughlan
(Big Cat Records)

Ever since the Beatles and Dylan began performing their own songs, critics and fans have placed as high a value on songwriting as performing. Indeed, singers who perform material written by others -- Spice Girls, anyone? -- are often considered suspect. Mary Coughlan deserves no such knock. The Irish vocalist, teamed with producer Erik Visser, brings a keen understanding to the diverse material on After the Fall, and the results shine.

"Lucy's Dream" shows that Coughlan is as skilled at mimicking American country as she is at offering up Irish folk. Drummer Robbie Casserly lays down a pitter-pat beat and Brian Connor picks it up with a restrained Hammond organ groove that serves as a perfect counterpoint. Enter Coughlan's vocal, dusty as the Kansas plains and energetic as a rolling freight. Add an intricate little guitar interchange and a Connor Barry solo straight out of Nashville and you've got a song that would make Johnny Cash proud.

"John Fell Off the Work-Around" is a somber ballad in which a wife tells the story of her husband's depression after losing his job and her futile efforts to console him: "The look in his eyes would break your heart/He won't look straight at me/I said to him, John, let's make a plan/There's lots of things we can do/The paintwork's in an awful state/And the fence is rotten through." Visser's brilliant arrangement allows the song to build from a languid opening that casts Coughlan as smoky nightclub chanteuse, then picks up steam until her voice is lost in a whirling organ and ghostly vaudeville piano. It's a deft and ironic touch, as the wild organ ride and frenetic, mocking piano seem to add insult to John's injury.

"Dilemma," based on a Dorothy Parker poem, is the disc's hidden gem. It features a balanced interplay between acoustic guitar and piano, both played in a minor key. Musically tight, simply rendered, it's pure magic and mystery, a tune you could swear you've heard all your life. "Poison Words" plays more like pop. Set to a wistful piano, the tune is pretty enough to make even tough guys weep. That is, until you listen to the lyrics and realize "Poison" is a wife's valentine to her abusive husband. Then it's not so pretty -- it's downright creepy.

To be sure, there are a few missteps. "Woman Undone," for instance, is all overblown pathos, and "Run Away Teddy" -- in which Coughlan tries to sing American tough-girl rock -- is a mistake. But on the whole, Coughlan's dark musings are irresistible. She weaves her somber material into a tantalizing spell and offers it honestly, plainly, with an open hand. This disc is one gracious gesture, one thoughtful gift. Accept it.

-- Keith Lee Morris

Collecion Latina

Is it strange that a band of black guys from South Central Los Angeles with a Danish harmonica player would remix their songs in Spanish? Not really. "From our earliest days, WAR was deeply influenced by Latin culture," says WAR founder Lonnie Jordan.

Despite interracial friction and flareups over the past few decades, blacks and Latins in L.A. have heavily influenced each other. The Latin "Eastside Sound" of the Sixties was taken directly from black pop, and although the records never broke nationwide, the biracial sound had an impact on the likes of Frank Zappa (his Ruben and the Jets is a masterful parody/ tribute) and the Beatles (Cannibal and the Headhunters from East L.A. toured with them as an opening act). Low riding, long considered the exclusive property of Latins, became one of the primary ingredients in the videos and songs of black gangsta rappers on the West Coast, while the jailhouse clothing styles of chicanos are part of the dress code for young men and women everywhere.

WAR brings all these threads together on this Collecion. The hit "Low Rider" is represented in both a straight-ahead bilingual version and an extended "Mijangos Progressive" dance mix, while "East L.A.," a sweeping anthem of conjured-up hometown pride, is spiced effectively by Jose Feliciano's English and Spanish vocals. The powerful hold of rap on Latin youth is exemplified by the Hispanic MCs on the remake of "Don't Let No One Get You Down." WAR can hang even when the Latin sound in question comes from the Caribbean -- the previously unreleased "Salsa" captures the spirit, if not the letter, of that genre with great feeling.

The feel-good simplicity of this music is deceiving, as Jordan and company manage to mix street toughness with an overflowing friendliness, flute and harmonica solos with gorgeous melodies, and, of course, Spanish with English. Ironically, some of their most Latin-oriented tunes ("The Cisco Kid," "Cinco de Mayo") are presented here in their original English versions. Far from undercutting the album's premise, these lively hybrids reinforce the power of WAR's cross-cultural groove.

-- Lee Ballinger

Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow

I bought Sheryl Crow's first disc, 1994's Tuesday Night Club, because one of my favorite songwriters, David Baerwald, helped her pen and perform some of the tracks. Nice album, I thought. Catchy enough. Whatever. The rest of the culture was substantially more impressed. Crow's sly pop ditties managed to enthrall both the MTV and VH1 generations, and the disc's phenomenal longevity won her opening gigs for the likes of Bob Dylan and the Stones. All of which made expectations surrounding her second record epic bordering on insurmountable.

How has Crow acquitted herself? Quite nicely. Sheryl Crow is a more troubled piece of work than her debut, but also far more interesting. It's not that Crow has lost her knack for a melodic hook, she's just added a few sharp lyrical uppercuts to her arsenal.

"If it Makes You Happy" sounds like a keg-party sing-along -- until you check out the words ("If it makes you happy/Then why the hell are you so sad?"). The same sunny cynicism propels "A Change," a fuzzed-out anthem that takes some deserved shots at the vapid greed culture of her native L.A. The funky shuffle of "Maybe Angels" breathes fire at religious mercenaries, and "Redemption Day" provides an unflinching portrait of the carnage in Bosnia that earns its ire by refusing to bend to cliche. (Crow's haunting acoustic strums and sharply observed lyrics make it clear that a good bit of Dylan has rubbed off on her.)

Crow has again recruited a coterie of topnotch players, including ace drummers Michael Urbano and Pete Thomas, renowned boardman Mitchell Froom, and Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, who duets with Crow on the surging "Everyday Is a Winding Road." The instrumentation has also grown more sophisticated. In addition to the standard snaky guitar leads and chunky backbeats, Crow (as producer) has added an impressive list of nuance instruments -- harmonium, Moog bass, Wurlitzer, pennyosley -- all of which she plays.

As a vocalist, she remains limited by an instrument that will never dazzle. But she has more than compensated for the deficit on this ambitious sophomore effort, a joyous scream of rages that manages to subvert the rules of pop even as it revels in them.

-- Steven Almond

Sheryl Crow will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, September 21, at Sunrise Musical Theater, 5555 NW 95th Ave, 954-523-3309, with Wilco. Tickets are $22.75 and $25.75.

Music for Pleasure

As a member of New Order, Peter Hook's swooping reggae basslines helped bridge the gap between new-wave rock and dance -- don't call it disco -- music. Hook's melodic hooks and the pervasive, moody influence of New Order helped define the sound of "modern rock." Almost every popular band of the last fifteen years has operated in the long shadow of New Order, which makes some of the music on Music for Pleasure sound almost retro.

Hook's new side project is miles ahead of Revenge, his last dismal attempt to strike out on his own. Not unexpectedly, Monaco sounds like a brighter, more radio-friendly version of New Order, though the lyrics, by co-conspirator David Potts, retain their angst-ridden edge in addressing the usual concerns of love lost, unattainable or unimaginable.

Hook and Potts try a bit of everything here -- neoclassical Sixties pop, house, techno, and the ironic, brooding pop that made New Order alternately brilliant and embarrassing -- and bring it off with nonchalant grace. "What Do You Want from Me" is a jaunty pop excursion with an instantly memorable chorus of sha-la-las. "Under the Stars" recalls the sulky anthems of New Order's heyday, while "Junk" proves that Hook can still bridge the gap between disco and rock without drowning in the cliches of either style. Potts warbles the lyrics throughout with an amateurish, adolescent edge, but his untutored performance sits perfectly with the melancholy subject matter.

-- j. poet


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