Richard Thompson
You? Me? Us?
Linda Thompson
Dreams Fly Away

This is certainly the first Richard Thompson album to carry a title that might fit a Meg Ryan movie, but don't expect You? Me? Us? to do anywhere near the business that a celluloid puffball by America's Sweetheart would. Unfortunately, this double disc doesn't deserve to be the one that once and for all breaks Thompson out of his perennial cult status.

The nineteen-cut opus is divided into two distinct halves: "Voltage Enhanced" (i.e., electric); and "Naked" (i.e., acoustic), with two of the songs appearing on both sets. And the album does live up to the minimum requirements expected of Thompson. There are the great man's heat-lightning guitar licks and doleful vocals, along with specimens from his various thematic templates: sad-voiced ballads, ruminations on death, exuberant reels, really long sad-voiced ballads. Most of the work here, though, rarely surprises, in the way the best of Thompson does. Almost everything on You? sounds like a rehash of an older, better cut.

Of course, it doesn't help that the bitter and pensive mood discernible in so many of these tunes is almost oppressively rote, with lyrical images including razors, barbed wire, ghosts, cold, knives, and compliments that kill. Maybe Thompson, like John Hiatt, is now so enmeshed in domestic bliss that he has to summon the muse rather than draw from recent experience. That's fine, but You? Me? Us? makes it awfully hard to preach Thompson's genius in the Nineties.

Thompson's ex-wife and former creative partner Linda's talent is similarly dormant. She hasn't sung a note since 1988, when she was stricken by a psychological dilemma in which, she explains in the liner notes of the collection Dreams Fly Away, "you open your mouth and nothing happens." Eleven of the disc's twenty cuts are pulled from the decade she spent collaborating with Richard, during which they turned out some classic albums (including 1974's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and 1982's Shoot Out the Lights). By virtue of her extraordinary vocals, songs like "Walking on a Wire" (heard here in an alternate studio version) and "For Shame of Doing Wrong" are hers as surely as they're his.

Some of the other tracks -- including those from her lone solo album, 1985's One Clear Moment -- are much less darkly striking than those high points, borne of marital tension. Still, Linda Thompson (now Kenis) does herself proud with littleknown gems such as "Talking Like a Man," the previously unreleased "Insult to Injury," and the relatively happy-go-lucky "One Clear Moment." This effort to bring the spotlight to an artist too often forgotten is both timely and overdue. If she never sings again, Dreams Fly Away will be a more than honorable last offering.

-- Rickey Wright

Marshall Crenshaw
Miracle of Science
(Razor & Tie)

Marshall Crenshaw has been essaying masterful pop-bliss albums for so long now that his latest -- his first set of original material in five years -- has the distinct ring of formula. It's a hell of a formula, though, one that stretches farther than the John-Paul jangle of most popsters, from the bluesy swagger of "Who Stole That Train" (a Ray Price obscurity) to the taut crunch of "Starless Summer Sky." You also get a fine cover of Dobie Gray's soul standard "The 'In' Crowd," as well as a heartbreaking version of Grant Hart's "Twenty-Five Forty-One." When ex-HYsker DY drummer Hart wrote the song back in '88, it was meant to metaphorically memorialize that band's salad days and eventual demise. Crenshaw, however, turns it into a lament of anthemic proportions -- sweet, like the first taste of love, bitter, like the last drop of betrayal.

-- John Floyd

Tricky Presents Grassroots

As trip-hop's first pop star (at home in England, at least), Tricky has done more than anyone else to help invent and shape that recently formed genre. More than the slightly vanilla work of his fellow trip-hoppers in Portishead, Tricky's dark, urban escapades -- as heard most recently on last year's magnificent Maxinquaye album -- mesh beats and sampling with mood and melody in a way that reveals the influence of, and an essential kinship with, the most adventurous American hip-hop.

Before he releases a genuine followup to Maxinquaye later this year, Tricky diverges a bit from his rising-career path with two sideline releases. First, the album Nearly God (which was also the artist's pseudonym during the project) is a sort-of compilation linked by Tricky's production, with his songs performed by Bjsrk, Terry Hall, and other singers.

Tricky's second project, a five-song EP entitled Tricky Presents Grassroots, finds the rapper/producer/musician in a New York state of mind, employing hip-hop and R&B performers in an apparent effort to get back to black-music basics. But while the street raps of the Hillfiguzes ("Heaven, Youth, Hell") and the crooning of Stephanie Cooke ("Live with Yo Self") are clearly more conventional than Tricky's prior concoctions, Grassroots is no bid at urban radio play. As always, Tricky asks much more of hip-hop and R&B than most. Rather than create tracks with lazy loops and beats, he challenges our ears with densely layered mixes and thick atmospherics, such as on the stark, chilling soul of "Devil's Helper" and the parched-mouth toasting of "Tricky Kid." If Grassroots is Tricky's stab at traditional urban forms, well, he fails. Lucky for us the guy's too creative for his own good.

-- Roni Sarig

Robert Earl Keen
No. 2 Live Dinner

If this were merely a country record, it would be the finest release this year. But Robert Earl Keen and his virtuoso band don't limit themselves to any one genre. Like his former roommate and fellow Lone Star troubadour Lyle Lovett, Keen is a voracious omnivore whose music flows seamlessly from traditional country to Texas swing to blues to honky-tonk. Best of all, this is a live record that manages to capture the passionate spontaneity of the Keen ensemble, as well as providing a 70-minute survey of the songwriter's finest work.

Foremost among the fifteen cuts here is "Dreadful Selfish Crime," a touching account of a small-town loser who is "lost in a crowd/Looking for rain in a thunder cloud." For rockers, "The Road Goes On Forever" provides an obvious highlight, as Keen croons this sly retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde saga while fiddler Bryan Duckworth and guitarist Rich Brotherton trade heart-stopping solos. Keen's mordant sense of humor propels "Merry Christmas from the Family," while ace producer Lloyd Maines employs his quavering pedal steel guitar to convey the besotted (and delightfully dysfunctional) ambiance that apparently reigns at Keen family gatherings.

No stranger to Hank Williams or Willie Nelson, Keen delivers his ballads wrapped in a velvety baritone that could reduce even the most hard-hearted cowboy to Kleenex. If "Rollin' By" isn't enough to jerk tears, "Mariano" -- the plainspoken story of one of the undocumented workers so prevalent in Keen's native city of Banderas, Texas -- surely will. Honestly, this is one of the only albums I know of that can make me laugh and cry in the same sitting.

Robert Earl Keen is a genius without baggage, a storyteller utterly devoid of pretense. If you know what's good for you, you'll snap this record up before they recall the rest to Heaven.

-- Steven Almond

Willie Bryant
Blues Around the Clock

You may not have heard of him, but bandleader, DJ, and vocalist Willie Bryant was an important figure on the New York City R&B and jazz scene of the Thirties and Forties. Certainly the unofficial mayor of Harlem's obscurity is somewhat baffling in light of the scintillating brilliance of the mid-Forties tracks compiled here, recorded for the Apollo label with a ferociously swinging band, featuring sax greats Tab Smith and Johnny Hicks and onetime Ellington trumpeter Taft Jordan. Variously jivey, lascivious, and playful, cuts like "Sneaky Pete," "Algier's Blues," and the two-part "Blues Around the Country" are snapshots of the time when the raucous swing of big band was mutating into the even harder swing of rhythm and blues. In addition to ten Bryant tracks, Blues Around the Clock includes some impossibly rare vocal gems from songwriting genius Doc Pomus (including the hilarious "Blues Without Booze") and some unreleased stuff by trombonist Bob Range that is well worth a listen.

-- John Floyd

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