Michael Penn

Michael Penn is best remembered for two radio hits ("No Myth" and "This & That") that are now nearly a decade old. His last disc, Free-for-All, came out a full five years ago. So it's good to hear him return with a pop album as assured as Resigned, which, in addition to nods to Revolver and the White Album (backward guitar washes on the first two tracks, McCartneyesque choruses), calls to mind the recent work of his occasional cohort Aimee Mann. Resigned lays claim to the same bittersweet post-breakup turf Mann charted on 1995's bracing I'm with Stupid.

While Penn's knack for melody doesn't hide the messes at the center of these songs -- "Small Black Box" equates the demise of a relationship with a plane crash -- his emotional confusion suits the record's offbeat charm. Played mostly by a basic four-piece lineup of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards and produced by Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg), this music manages a wide range of moods, now and then walking purposefully into left field for moments like the broken-time, faux-exotic intro to "Like Egypt Was" or the ethereal, slow-motion opening of "Figment." "Selfish" achieves majesty without losing its essential Lennon crunchiness. "Cover Up" pulls off a similar coup with an even more melodic bass, which gets a chance to shine on a strikingly quiet bridge before the rocker returns to full power. That power is sometimes subtle, sometimes full-on over Resigned's brisk 40 minutes. Penn's return is a small gem, but a gem nonetheless.

-- Rickey Wright

What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach
McCoy Tyner Trio with Symphony

One of the weird things about the Sixties was the impetus the decade's turbulence gave to experimentation by composers who worked in a pure pop vein. People like Jimmy Webb and Van Dyke Parks, using full orchestras, earned a mantle of hipness that eluded those who came before them (Henry Mancini) and after (Barry White). But the greatest pop composer of the decade was Burt Bacharach. You can listen to his series of luminous hits performed by Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, or the Carpenters and hear only the catchy hooks, when in fact he was constantly toying with tempo, instrumentation, and mood, gently but very unquestionably breaking new ground.

All of which makes Bacharach a perfect foil for pianist McCoy Tyner, whose credits stretch back to another seminal Sixties composer, John Coltrane. The fact that there are no vocals here gives Tyner both a burden and an opportunity. Since most of the eight songs are so familiar, he must elicit the feelings the words convey ("What the world needs now is love") with his piano, or lose connection to the tune. On the other hand, as long as he captures the spirit, he's free to go where he wants, whether that means embroidering the melody or inventing whole new ways to hear compositions. McCoy Tyner brilliantly does all of this -- he's a virtuoso so skilled he never has to show off, and a musician capable of sustained, directed emotion. He's even able to find the same feminine heart of tunes that Dionne Warwick ("A House Is Not a Home") or Dusty Springfield ("Look of Love") did, achieving a true intimacy between the sexes that's rare in pop music.

Tyner has plenty of help. The orchestra plays with empathy, and the lush, surging arrangements are, not surprisingly, by a jazz bass player, John Clayton. Drummer Lewis Nash drives the beat with real snap, much as Ed Greene did for Barry White, and bassist Christian McBride's lines throb in just the right places and spaces.

-- Lee Ballinger

Radio Smoke Box
(Ars Nova)

Simple: This debut CD is solidly produced, well-played, and packed with the songs that make Y a top-level South Florida band, a real nice package. But comparing it to the trio's live shows is like comparing a stroll in the park to a trip through Paris with Dodi and Di. The explosions, sonic peaks and valleys, moments of overwhelming power -- dare I, catharsis? -- become, on this CD, little more than pleasant listening.

Which is not to say Radio Smoke Box goes up in flames, only that Y is so massive live that the studio version pales. The record sounds like stuff you'd hear on ZETA-4 (no, not the commercials). It's rock full of tasty technique and enough chops to fell a redwood, but there's no blood spilled and no ledges leapt from.

Part of the problem is that singer/bassist Matthew Shippey has not matured enough as a songwriter to wrench guts with words alone, even though the power of his voice is undeniable. His pipes are squandered by the overproduction of Sebastian Krys -- slick as wet terrazzo, smooth as frozen yogurt. (Tracks were laid at places like Crescent Moon and Criteria.) This record might win a Grammy, but for those of us who've seen Y live, it's like slow dancing with a pretty person who never takes her clothes off. A prime example: "Fysh." On disc this hilarious piledriver of an anthem has la-las and sitar and sounds like a happy pop-metal band trying not to miss a note. On-stage, "Fysh" borders on sexual assault.

So we're left with a record of Hootie meets name-some-Seventies-FM band. For their ages and experience (young and not that much), Shippey, guitarist Charlie Rivera, and drummer Sean Bauzay are among the most talented and tasteful musicians working this market. Radio Smoke Box is one of the most well-crafted recordings released by a local act this year, and it affirms Y's shot at the big leagues. All well and good. But to see why Y deserves superstardom, catch the threesome in concert. Before they win their first Grammy.

-- Greg Baker

Julian Cope
(Cooking Vinyl)

The rap on Julian Cope is that he's some sort of acid casualty caught up in a navel-gaze so deep that his records continue to leap into a zone where no one else goes, or would care to go. But for those keeping closer tabs, it's generally acknowledged that Cope's been spending the past few years holed up in his studio creating a series of albums beyond expectation.

Since 1991's Peggy Suicide reinvented Cope as a modern psychedelic guru with a tighter rein on his loopy impulses, the Brit has kept his nose to the grindstone and poured forth a glut of material that's above mockery. Peggy Suicide, Jehovahkill, Autogeddon, 20 Mothers, and now Interpreter (available for nearly a year in Britain) could be considered the longest song cycle ever attempted.

For Interpreter, Cope again uses the schematic of short, concise pop songs mixed with lengthier, trippier excursions. He has never been exactly timely; part of his charm has always been his bizarre anachronism. And nowhere is that more evident than on "I've Got My TV and My Pills," Cope's ode to middle-class consumption. Its aim is true, and typically late as hell.

This adherence to an out-of-synch internal clock works two-fold: It cancels Cope's bid for mainstream success while stoking critical appreciation. Only the critics, and a small band of fellow druids, have kept up with his prodigious output. Which seems to be how Cope prefers it. Interpreter is not, however, his finest hour. The disc constitutes his homage to the improvisational Krautrock of the early Seventies, with which he has been obsessed since his teenage years. But where Tangerine Dream and other Krautrock acts were innovative, Cope's imitation sounds a bit too studied, and his songs meander beyond trippiness into numbing self-indulgence. There's still plenty to unearth here. Cope is, almost despite himself, a gifted songwriter. And his voice alone demands a listen. It's a deep, charismatic drone, no matter how bizarre the tales it tells.

-- Rob O'Connor


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