Aimee Mann
I'm With Stupid

Aimee Mann has been hauling her dented and dinged heart around for more than a decade now, pulling it out of a box for show-and-tell on three albums by her old band 'Til Tuesday, and on two solo records, 1993's remarkable Whatever and now the equally fine I'm With Stupid. Time and experience appear to have made her somewhat more wary of the romantic minefield than she was as a post-new-wave ingenue, although when she does take the plunge these days, she usually experiences the same deflating result. But even if love's pitfalls continue to vex Mann, at least she sounds as if she's resigned to the disappointments. Scarred and perhaps slightly smarter, Mann sings in her expressive alto: "I was hoping that you'd know better/But I've been wrong before" on the spare and affecting "Amateur," while on the loping, ringing "All Over Now," she sighs, "You can write the play/Every word I say/I don't have to stay to see the credits." And the album-closing "It's Not Safe," while pegged to her one-step-forward-two-steps-back career, best sums up her whole world-view: "You're the idiot who keeps believing in luck/And you just can't get it through your head that no one else gives a fuck."

Mann and producer/multi-instrumentalist/occasional songwriting partner Jon Brion have virtually eliminated the baroque flourishes that permeated Whatever in favor of a shuffling hip-pop reverberation on the album-opening "Long Shot" and her Melrose Place demi-hit "That's Just What You Are," and they strip down the aching ballad "You Could Make a Killing" and the cautionary tale "You're With Stupid Now" to only voice and minimal instrumental accompaniment, allowing her palpable melancholy to seep in. As always, she knows her way around a Velcro-like hook, evidenced here by the instantly hummable "Choice in the Matter," the crunching "Sugarcoated" (written with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler), and the wall-of-slashing guitars "It's Not Safe." Wonderful throughout.

By Michael Yockel

Robert Ashley
Superior Seven/Tract
(New World)

Robert Ashley is a composer who uses the interface between live music and other media, notably television, to create works that are sometimes alienating, often beautiful, usually mysterious, and always thought-provoking. Most of his compositions include a sung or spoken text. Superior Seven/Tract contains two instrumental exceptions to that rule, although, as the composer explains in his notes to this release, there is an implicit linguistic background to both of them.

Superior Seven is a concerto for flute and orchestra A without the orchestra. Ashley calls the orchestral version "unplayable" because it requires the coordination of seven independent instrumental ensembles, with the conductor playing the role of mixer. Rather than letting this oddly composed music gather dust, Ashley prepared a version for flute (here played by Barbara Held) and MIDI technology. MIDI allows a computer to "play" a synthesizer with greater accuracy and complexity than any human could manage on any instrument. Harmonically, the piece has an unresolved quality that is sustained throughout its leisurely 30 minutes. Depending on your taste for musical open-endedness, Superior Seven will seem either profound or profoundly boring.

Much the same can be said of Tract, a work whose colors are warmer and more mournful, mainly because of its use of a multitracked human voice (in this case, baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner, a long-time Ashley collaborator). Because Tract is explicitly textless, the title is partly a joke, but the music's ominous edge suggests something much more serious.

By Raymond Tuttle

Henry Butler
For All Seasons

Firmly rooted in the stride piano style of his native New Orleans, pianist Henry Butler uses his Crescent City background as a jumping-off point rather than a raison d'àtre. Sure, he relies on the strong left-hand boogie style of Professor Longhair, but his right hand turns out improvised lines that soar atop the rhythmic bedrock derived from that city's most renowned music innovator. And Butler is not content to merely re-create old styles: Although his melodic insistence and technical prowess may call to mind lions such as Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, Butler forges ahead with exuberance and daring.

On his debut album for Atlantic, Butler is joined by the always innovative veteran jazz bassist Dave Holland and drummer Herman Jackson, who supply a heavy groove on the opener "Blues for All Seasons," a Butler original that fashions a template for the set. The trio's reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "How Insensitive" ingratiates itself with an infectious bass riff that weaves in and out of the tune as Butler dances around the melody. A solo stride-ride through W.C. Handy's chestnut "St. Louis Blues" reveals Butler's passion for improv, as he darts from one melodic idea to the next while never losing that walking Bourbon Street groove. "A Winter's Tale," the album's fourteen-minute centerpiece, conjures a variety of sonic moods -- some spiky and atonal, others joyful. Steve Turre guests on trombone on "Souvenir d'un Amor," adding a wistful, slightly melancholic feel to an otherwise uplifting vamp punctuated by Butler's bright, playful leads.

By Bob Weinberg

Afrika Bambaataa Presents Time Zone
Warlocks and Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips and You

Few artists can claim to be both the progenitor of a genre and also a continually vital and creative upstart within that genre. Afrika Bambaataa does both on Warlocks and Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips and You, his first widely available release since 1991's The Decade of Darkness. The lengthy set is significant not just because it marks the return of hip-hop's godfather (Bambaataa was one of the central figures during rap's formative years in the early Eighties), but also because the old man's record compares more than favorably to anything out there by young MCs who boast of taking the music to the next level.

Bambaataa's strength is in his world-view: Where some rap stars merely represent their neighborhood (Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan, for example), Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation include the entire planet in their scope of positivity. The all-inclusiveness extends to the music, in which Bambaataa routinely fuses old-school beats, new-school rhythms, jazz grooves, African chants, punk rants, reggae romps, go go bumps, James Brown jumps, and P-Funk pumps into a monster jam that sums up and advances everything hip-hop has come to signify.

As with other Bambaataa records, Warlocks is the combined effort of unknown rappers (Queen Asia, Arthur 4X) and familiar players (the P-Funk Horns, the Time Zone Band) under the direction of the master producer. With Warlocks clocking in at a whopping 78 minutes, there's room enough for everyone and everything, including a return to an old classic ("Unity Part 7," a revamp of his 1984 collaborative EP with James Brown) and the title track, which offers a bizarre extraterrestrial conspiracy theory.

By Roni Sarig

Jack Logan and Liquor Cabinet
Mood Elevator
(Restless/Medium Cool)

If ever a rocker set himself up for a sophomore letdown, it's Jack Logan. An unassuming Georgia swimming pool repairman, Logan was plucked from obscurity two years back when Medium Cool released Bulk, a critically praised 42-song compilation of spooky ballads and earthy, Beatles-esque blazers that Logan recorded in a homemade studio with the help of some musician buddies.

Mood Elevator, his second album, offers a mere seventeen cuts, but the quality of the compositions actually equals that of Bulk, and the record exudes the same recorded-live, low-fi appeal. That comes as no surprise, given that the backing band, Liquor Cabinet, is really just a sly cover for the same guys who played on the first album. Logan's songs are built around the most basic of chord progressions, usually strummed on rhythm guitar and sloppily embellished with Kelly Keneipp's tinkling piano, Dave Phillips's rumbling lead guitar, and Aaron Phillips's rickety drumbeats. Terry Rouch's lazy slide guitar lends a delicious twang to "Chinese Lorraine" and moans darkly on the minor-keyed "Vintage Man."

Logan's morose songwriting sensibility is probably too grim for mainstream radio, but the hook that anchors "When It All Comes Down" is juicy enough to stand a chance at airplay. His voice, an adenoidal baritone that draws its strength from understatement, is put in the service of word pictures that resonate like poetry. "Since the collision/My stitches are itchin' me . . . I emerged unscathed/But I don't seem to think as hard," he explains in the droll but catchy "Unscathed." On "My New Town," Logan sings, "I smell the paper mill across the river/I smell the oil refinery/I smell the citizens that walk these wretched streets." Sunny bromides and pop anthems they're not. But if thoughtful rock and roll lamentation is your bag, this followup will not disappoint.

By Steven Almond

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Steven Almond
Roni Sarig
Raymond Tuttle
Bob Weinberg
Michael Yockel