Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Original Cast Recording
(Atlantic Records)

Hedwig Schmidt's ill-fated pecker is the biggest thing off-Broadway in years. Apparently nothing gets the culturati in the seats quicker than rock operas about botched sex changes, especially when the star of the show's a guy pretending to be a girl who used to be a guy reduced to keeping in his pants an inch-long "mound of flesh with a scar running down it," to quote from the lyrics. Never mind the music -- and seriously, never mind the music -- because this is fodder the likes of which keep the Village Voice filled for months. Better a rock opera about a Barbie-crotched rock star than another Victor/Victoria revival, at least.

For almost a year, major labels wet themselves trying to secure this little nugget of a record, convinced here for the first time ever was a soundtrack to a musical that had plenty of singles and worked without the visuals; what they used to call a "concept album" back before Pete Townshend went deaf, dumb, and blind writing about pinball wizards. And it works too, if your idea of rock and roll is over-the-top show tunes played on electric guitar and piano and being sung by a guy pretending to be an East German boy-turned-war-bride abandoned by her GI husband in a Kansas trailer park who sings like David Bowie imitating Marianne Faithfull ... or something. Actually Hedwig (as voiced on the disc by coauthor John Cameron Mitchell) isn't even a star, just a failed freak left behind by both of the men s/he loves, including Tommy Gnosis, the musician Hedwig made a star till he too ran off and left her to rot. Now all Hedwig has left is off-Broadway, where s/he goes to sing his/her sad tale for the appreciative masses who love to laugh over good sob stories. All very post-modern.

And it's a good joke for a while, if your idea of ha-ha-funny is a song about a fella who's "bleeding from the gash between my legs." Or if you can follow the song about how there used to be three sexes before the gods split men and women in half ... or something. (Apparently that's based on Plato's theory that sex is how we reattach the two halves of the perfect entity, which is, like, a very rock subject.) But the music, written by Cheater's Steven Trask, doesn't stand up to repeated listenings: At best it's the 1990s version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; at worst, it's a modern-rock sampler (producer Brad Wood turns the rock songs into Smashing Pumpkins-doing-Pearl Jam B-sides, especially "Exquisite Corpse") doing battle with a show-tune compilation. And for some reason, it's not hard to imagine Sandra Bernhard in the lead role. Never a good sign.

-- Robert Wilonsky

Angelique Kidjo

A singer from Benin, West Africa, Kidjo is a widely popular touring attraction in Europe thanks to funky African-inspired music that she sprinkles with overtly Western touches. But when I saw Kidjo perform at a music festival in Denmark this past summer, I couldn't see what all the excitement was about. While she and her bandmates were draped in colorful costumes, any traces of Mother Africa in the music were lost in the bottom-heavy pop and digital techno rhythms. On CD, however, it's a different story. Oremi starts strong, with a vigorous cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"; Kidjo executes it so well it's difficult to believe it's a remake. Like some of the other numbers on the disc, the song floats on a strong undercurrent of funky African vocals, accessible beats, and an earthy, flowing mix that Kidjo punctuates with her brazen voice. Elsewhere "Babalao" has a great funk/dance quality that recalls Johnny Clegg and Juluka at their best, while the dazzling "Itche Koutche" is distinguished by Branford Marsalis's saxophone playing. The album is proof that being there isn't always better.

-- Jack Jackson

Damnations TX
Half Mad Moon

Sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly (who changed her name to avoid being Debbie Boone) moved from upstate New York to Austin, Texas. There isn't a better place for them to live, considering that you can't spill a Shiner Bock without wetting another literate, country-inflected band in Austin. Part blues, some bluegrass, a hint of punk rock, and a heaping cup of urbanized country, the Damnations TX major-label debut is a mesquite-flavor collection of melancholy and frisky Americana. Plenty diverse (even though it clocks in at under 40 minutes), Half Mad Moon nevertheless blends the moods into a cohesive record through the discipline of the players. The music is relatively simple: three or four chords, a quick guitar solo maybe, and dependent more on emotion and soul than virtuosity. But it's a tricky tightrope to walk; too much braininess and it comes off as carpetbagger country with not enough smarts. It's just a mess.

When Half Mad hits the regret-laden "No Sign of Water," it becomes apparent that the Damnations know just how to keep things balanced. The song's thrust comes from the sisters' intertwining voices and the close relationship between their vocal dynamics and rueful lyrics. There isn't a note that feels out of place or a wasted breath on this tightly woven track. Traveling on a midtempo current of acoustic guitars with occasional blues licks (courtesy of Rob Bernard) adding color and Keith Langford's crackling drums, Bernard's guitar volume and slightly distorted tone build steadily, eventually propelling Boone and Kelly to forcefully lament that there is always "a barstool to soak up your sorrow while you drown."

But the record isn't a downer. The rollicking two-stepping tunes, "Things I Once Adored," "Down The Line," "Unholy Train," and "Finger the Pie," are sprinkled throughout, adding a live energy without overwhelming the more introspective work. The fuzzy guitar, two-four bass, and incessant snare drum of "Down the Line" are pure Saturday night honky-tonk, and a quick, pick-up blast. This tonal mix has been mined by Lone Justice, the Geraldine Fibbers, Emmy Lou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. But there's always room for one more set of heartfelt songwriters in that club.

-- David Simutis

Martin Sexton
The American

On this audacious major-label debut, the Boston songwriter takes Americana on a cross-country joy ride. The title track, with its weepy pedal steel and slinky castanets, manages to weave Western swing and bossa nova without a seam showing. "Love Keep Us Together" weds Sexton's supple tenor to a juicy R&B riff, while "My Maria" weaves sinewy guitars around a gospel chorus composed of, well, Sexton, Sexton, and Sexton.

Aside from drumming duties, which he wisely leaves to Joe Bonadio, Sexton provides most of the sound here, and his ability to bridge genres is a testament as much to his clever orchestration of guitar, bass, and various organs (pipe, prairie, Hammond) as it is to the durability of his melodies.

The real draw here, though, is Sexton's voice, which sweetly croons and soars into brilliant falsetto passages. ("The Way I Am" showcases his pipes: In the space of a minute, his voice assumes the shape of a lost troubadour, a crusty old drunk, and a squeezebox.) The incandescent "Candy" breaks my heart every time I hear it, then mends it all over again.

Best album of the year so far. By a mile.
-- Steve Almond