Elliott Smith: Figure 8 (DreamWorks)Onstage, Elliott Smith cuts a deceptively slight and scruffy figure, resembling your friendly, unwashed neighborhood busker, hunched over his acoustic guitar in a worn metal T. Then hauntingly familiar classic rock melodies take over, tug at your attention with their distinctive minor-key undertow and gently prod with their incisive lyrics. Figure 8 proves Smith is anything but a minor figure on disc. The first song and single, "Son of Sam," for instance, shows the former Heatmiser widening his world view, tells the story of a serial killer against a lush and detailed sonic backdrop of ragtime piano chords, C&W-style fingerpicking and ragged electric guitar. "Junk Bond Trader" preaches to a short-sighted businessmen amid swooping strings and glockenspiel peals, and "LA" embraces sinewy guitar lines straight off '70s AOR radio while Smith, a recent transplant, makes the less-than-angelic city rhyme with, "Things I'd never done/Cars parked in the sun/Living in the day/Last night I was about to throw it all away." Although Figure 8 still includes Smith's characteristically quiet yet tough-minded songs ("Somebody That I Used to Know," "Easy Way Out"), there's an ambitious, cinematic expansiveness to the music and lyrics that makes one suspect that Smith's contributions to films like Good Will Hunting and American Beauty have had an effect. Seems like a fair trade: Hollywood used his naked singing and songwriting to add a prickly authenticity to its light and shadow, and after squinting in the hazy glare, Smith learned how to write about the world outside of his navel.
Producers: Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf and Elliott Smith. Engineers: Rothrock and Schnapf. Studios: Abbey Road, Capitol, Sunset Sound and Sonora studios. Mastering: Don C. Tyler/Precision Mastering (Hollywood, CA).-Kimberly Chun
The Persuasions: Sunday Morning Soul (Bullseye/Rounder Records)Whether or not you're a Christian, old-fashioned gospel music stirs the soul, and The Persuasions have been singing a capella soul music-both secular and spiritual-for more than 35 years. If you're not familiar with them, The Persuasions mix the religious passion of the Five Blind Boys From Alabama with the on-the-corner harmonies and patter of doo-wop. Their latest effort is all gospel, and delightfully old-school, including songs such as "That's My Desire," "Dry Bones" and the beautiful bass-led "Walk in Jerusalem." The Persuasions' voices have gained character but seem to have lost no range or fervor since they started out in the '60s, and this album is good enough to garner them another generation of believers. And though this album is one of their more traditional-sounding efforts, they are not ones to simply rest of their laurels-recently they put out a CD consisting entirely of Frank Zappa songs, and another of Grateful Dead tunes is currently in the works.
Producers: Jerry Lawson and Chris Rival. Engineer: Rival. Studio: My Generation Studio (Somerville, MA). Mastering: Jonathan Wyner/MWorks (Cambridge, MA).-Barbara Schultz
Eels: Daisies of the Galaxy (DreamWorks)Mark Everett, better known as A Man Called E, and frontman of a sort-of group called Eels, is developing into one of pop music's most interesting eccentrics. He writes and arranges the songs and plays most of the instruments on Eels records; in that way, he's sort of a folkier, stranger version of World Party's Karl Wallinger. He has strong pop instincts and a knack for writing catchy hooks, but there's also a weird streak in ol' E that prevents him from approaching any song in a "normal" way. This often brilliant, sonically adventurous CD is loaded with unusual arrangements and juxtapositions of instruments-a fuzzed bass and an organ might dominate one tune beneath E's insistent capo'd acoustic guitar; a sumptuous string group or a somber horn section shape other songs. Think Van Dyke Parks, think Smile-era Brian Wilson, think Beck without the funky beats. Sunny but dark under the surface; a little disquieting, like the suburban robot birds at the end of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. It's considerably brighter than the death-obsessed '98 Eels release, Electro-Shock Blues, but there's an underlying sadness here, too, even though the veneer is often so pleasing. Most of the songs clock in between two and three minutes, yet there is an awful lot going on under the usually simple melodies and straightforward vocals. It's a disc that clearly will reveal much more with repeated listenings.
Producer: A Man Called E. Engineer: Wally Gagel. Additional engineering: Jim Lang, Michael Simpson, Robert Caranza, Mickey Petralia, Jeff Shannon. Studios: Chateau E, Knobworld, the Bomb Factory and O' Henry. Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway Mastering.-Blair Jackson
TheThe: Naked Self (Nothing/Interscope)The world only has enough patience for one David Bowie, which is unfortunate if you're Matt Johnson, the creative force behind The The. Johnson, like Bowie, has the same unmistakable penchant for deconstructing comfortable musical formats and for painting scathing pictures of a world on the brink of apocalypse. Sonically, Naked Self, while drawing from a diverse palette of sounds, references albums like NIN's The Fragile and PJ Harvey's Is This Desire? in equal parts. Layers of cut 'n' paste guitars, odd samples and synths churn about in a constantly changing, while at times sparse, soundscape. The glue in this sonic collage is Johnson's presence as a vocalist, which always manages to cut though, even when heavily distorted or buried in the mix. Naked Self, in a more subdued way, hints at the same future that Trent Reznor has been nailing into our heads for a decade now. For those who cling to the notion that rock isn't dead, Naked Self demands a listen.
Producers: Matt Johnson and Bruce Lampcov. Engineers: Lampcov and David Lee. Studio: Harold Dessau's Recording Emporium. Mastering: MasterDisk.-Robert Hanson
The Chieftains: Water From the Well (BMG Classics)What's left to say about The Chieftains? Lovers of Irish music already know that they are the most virtuosic, energetic, entertaining and beloved traditional group of the past almost-40 years. While many of their recent efforts have featured a gala array of pop and folk stars, Water From the Well is a return to form: the band's first all-traditional album in too long. It's a journey through the different melodies and styles of Ireland's many music centers. The only guest-stars are fellow trad musicians. It's as if The Chieftains spent the past several years making a case for Irish music's validity in a pop- and rock-dominated music industry, and this album serves as a closing argument. As might be expected, the real thing is much more beguiling than any crossover.
Producer: Paddy Maloney. Engineers: Jeffrey Lesser and Michael Secher. Digital editing: Adam Rosen. Studio: Soundtrack (Boston). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Studios (NYC).-Barbara Schultz
James Hardway: A Positive Sweat (Streetbeat)It's tough to know what exactly to make of James Hardway, the alter ego of London-born (and current citizen of the world, it seems) programmer/multi-instrumentalist and drum-'n'-bass specialist David Harrow. The groove is the thing, for sure, and the 14 excursions on this disc are all cool explorations of various beats and rhythms-bopping, fizzing and sizzling above some jazzy horn and sax breaks, bold acoustic bass lines and assorted electronic percussion and other textures. There's something vaguely disturbing and decadent going on here-or perhaps my listening has been influenced by the album artwork, which has a sort of Weimar-transplanted-to-the-seedy-side-of-Vegas look to it. Anyway, there's some strange and fascinating music on here, and on a handful of tunes, a hypnotic singer/lyricist who certainly deserves a mention-Amanda Ghost.
Production engineering, mastering: James Hardway (David Harrow). Studio: Harrow's home studio and in various halls along their European tour, on his laptop.-Blair Jackson