Graham Parker
Acid Bubblegum
(Razor & Tie)

Acid Bubblegum is meant to be a return to form for Graham Parker, a reprise of his classic Seventies days as a bitter, punky pub-rocker. The album is certainly filled with bitterness, and for a while that's okay. The opening track, "Turn It into Hate," bitches effectively about the blind patriotism that celebrated the Gulf War. And while there's something smug and too easy about Parker's elitism in "Sharpening Axes" ("I don't appeal to the masses and they don't appeal to me"), the soulful power of his blue-eyed sneer pulls it off. But sneers, even charming ones, get old quick when that's all there is. In "Impenetrable" Parker looks down his nose at some of his "white trash" fans, and on the catchy "Obsessed with Aretha," he knocks that legend for not being what she used to be: "You might even say the girl has still got soul/But not that much."

Now, many would say Parker's got one hell of a lot of nerve going after the Queen of Soul, what with his own glory years a good fifteen years behind him. The conventional wisdom on Parker's career has always been that it nose-dived right after 1979's exquisitely bitter Squeezing Out Sparks, or right after he split with the Rumor, or right after he started writing love songs -- take your pick. But conventional wisdom is often wrong, and the truth is that Parker's post-Sparks career has been filled with great moments, sometimes entire albums of them. Critics who only superficially understood the bitterness of Parker's early years were predestined to feel betrayed by the sweet devotion and pop production of 1983's The Real Macaw or by the love songs and rootsy arrangements of 1988's The Mona Lisa's Sister and 1991's Struck by Lightning. The ironies, of course, are that Parker's early records were always as idealistic and romantic as they were cynical, and that his much admired rants against synthetic, passionless lives had regularly been love songs all along.

So while the old-school, bar-band punch on Acid Bubblegum is quite enjoyable, the album fails not because it's a return to form but because it buys into a soulless, bile-packed stereotype of what that form actually was. It forgets Parker's own best advice: "You can't take love for granted." Parker still shows some sparks of the old soul on Acid Bubblegum. But not that much.

-- David Cantwell

Dan Bern
Dog Boy Van

It's become a cliche to compare young folkie-type artists to Bob Dylan, but Dan Bern appears to have done the cliche one better by actually becoming Bob Dylan, circa 1962. Exact same adenoidal baritone, same herky-jerky phrasing, same three-chord strum and harmonica fills, same sly-poet verbal panache.

Take "Jerusalem." Draped in a lush melody, the song offers an extended riff by a charming punster who discusses his trip to the Holy Land, the theory of relativity, and his own messianic calling, all without so much as a bridge to offer a breather. "Hannibal," a foot-stomping twelve-bar rocker, bristles with righteous anger. And, as advertised, "Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues" tells the story of Bern's extraterrestrial encounter, during which he is grilled not about his earthling habits but about why nearly all of his songs are in the key of G.

"How come I'm in a spaceship talking about my act?" Bern yelps. "We'd rather talk physics," the aliens respond. "But you're illiterate there." It's moments like these -- moments full of genuine wit and self-effacing humor -- that distinguish Dog Boy Van from the heap of Dylan pretenders.

Bern is also capable of pathos. On "Kurt" Bern puts a fresh turn on one of our moldiest tragedies by observing how addicted our culture has become to the creation of martyrs. He does so, in fact, with grace. The melody is mournful, the pacing dirgelike, and the lyrics at once evocative and unflinching: "When Kurt Cobain blew out his brain, all the little girls cried like rain/As for me, I felt the pain, but I got no T-shirts left to stain/For Kennedy and Jesse James and Joan of Arc and Kurt Cobain."

Obviously there are some Dylan fans who greet any aspiring songwriter with hoisted hackles. But given the vibrancy of Dylan's earliest work -- which Bern mimics -- and given that old Bob hasn't produced much of anything for the last decade, I'm inclined to greet young Dan as a welcome reincarnation.

-- Steven Almond

Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve
Costello and Nieve
(Warner Bros.)

When his fans wanted country, he gave them rock and roll, and when radio expected Kurt Cobain, he was happy to give them Kurt Weill. Now the 1997 model Elvis Costello returns with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve on a limited edition five-EP set of performances culled from a handful of late-'96 club dates. Costello and Nieve serves as a reminder of Costello's massive talent. It's Elvis giving the people what he wants -- intimate performances of mostly newer material, stripped down to the basics of acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals.

Costello isn't afraid to rework signature songs. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is performed alone, with a furiously strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pete Townsend's banging overture to "Pinball Wizard." "Alison" is presented as a showstopper, the centerpiece of a set-closing medley that also includes a two-minute detour into a pair of Smokey Robinson classics. The five American shows documented on Costello and Nieve provide a song list as diverse as American Top 40 radio of the Sixties. But instead of the percussive influences of Motown, Mersey, and Stax, Costello and Nieve provide nuanced arrangements in tribute to Broadway, Beethoven, the Grateful Dead, and classic film scores. Plus you get an Elvis Costello confident and comfortable enough to joke about his work during the between-song monologues.

Most of Costello and Nieve stands as a simple document -- one of contemporary pop's best songwriters reinventing himself as a song stylist, providing a perfect treat for long time fans. Perhaps the defining moment of Costello and Nieve arrives during his take on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1966 and a staple of Costello's early shows (heard on the '78 comp Stiffs Live). On this new version, Costello appears to address his commercial shortcomings head-on, notably the disappointing reception accorded 1996's All This Useless Beauty. It's as if for the first time Costello has discovered that someone else's words fit his plight better than his own.

-- Steve Kistulentz

The Hilliard Ensemble
A Hilliard Songbook
(ECM New Series)

The Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal group consisting of a countertenor, two tenors, and a baritone, has recorded a string of popular and artistically successful CDs for the ECM label. (Think of the group as the King's Singers minus the kitsch.) Many of these discs are devoted to early music and composers such as Tallis and Perotin. Some, however, present music from our own time, notably that of Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose compositions prove the viability and relevance of classical music in contemporary culture. In his introduction to this new double-disc set, Hilliard baritone Gordon Jones notes an apparent paradox: The supply of early music (i.e., approximately pre-1650) is almost limitless, but modern music suitable for this ensemble and its unusual combination of voices is relatively rare.

What's a poor ensemble to do? Hilliard's solution has been to commission new works and to encourage composers. Each year the Hilliard Ensemble holds a summer school where aspiring vocal ensembles and composers can be heard. Several of the works in this Songbook come from these occasions. All of the works (except icon Morton Feldman's Only) are by living composers. In addition to Part, James MacMillan and Veljo Tormis are dominant forces in today's music scene. Composers such as Michael Finnissy and John Casken are not far behind them. A Hilliard Songbook, then, is a confluence of opportunities -- for the singers, for the composers, and for listeners, who will respond to the variety and craftsmanship of the offerings. Several different important contemporary styles are represented, and the music is consistently absorbing. One minor drawback of this Songbook is its addictive nature: Much of the music lends itself to deeply contemplative listening, and once you've entered this simple yet strangely sensuous sound-world, it's hard to leave.

-- Raymond Tuttle

The Jigsaws
Wicked Alternative
(Yellow Dog)

Out for some time now (although it seems highly unlikely many people beyond New England, particularly anyone in the subtropical rock purgatory called South Florida, have heard it), Wicked Alternative works a more sweet-and-sour territory than the poppier sounds heard on this Boston-based band's previous releases, recalling at various times the Beatles, the Kinks, and especially hometown forebears Big Dipper. Singers/songwriters/guitarists Tim Gosnell and Dan Maranci split frontman duties straight down the middle, the former handling the more melodic cuts ("Magazine," "Spring," "Three Days"), the latter gnarling his numbers a tad with some aural and lyrical rancor ("Mrs. Poptart," "Her Thumbhead," "Youth Hostile") -- not unlike the way that Bill Goffrier and Gary Waleik approached their respective songs in Big Dipper. (Oh -- Jigsaws bassist Tom Brewitt did time with that band in its final form.)

Gosnell and Maranci practice a refreshing economy with lyrics, intent on communicating dissatisfaction and disaffection with both the world in general and some of its unnamed inhabitants in particular rather than on sniping and snarling about anything too specific. (Well, Maranci eviscerates the Dead/Phish axis and its adherents on "Shakedown Frown," while Gosnell unflinchingly lacerates rock-scene ne'er-do-wells on "I Am in a Band.") Not that either of them, thank goodness, ever indulges in angst-y moaning, and yet their unmitigated discontent grows somewhat wearisome about midway through these fourteen songs. Can everything deserve such ironic scorn? Still, their constant crankiness doesn't dampen the pop-rocking exuberance of the music, which careens along agreeably atop fetching two-guitar, verse-chorus-verse tunes and Michael Tocker's giddy beat. (Yellow Dog, 399 Broadway, #41, Cambridge, MA 02139)

-- Michael Yockel

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Steven Almond
David Cantwell
Steve Kistulentz
Raymond Tuttle
Michael Yockel