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The evolving sound of a Memphis-connected jazzman.

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"Meet the Curlews!"

Curlew

(Cuneiform)

You say you're feeling sleepy very sleepy? Well, you must have been listening to "Meet the Curlews!", the newest from Mississippi-born avant-garde saxophonist George Cartwright's dynamic outfit Curlew.

And that's not meant to be derogatory (the fact that the album, at times, could possibly induce you to kick back and nearly nap), it's just that this is a new Curlew. And Curlew, though its lineup and sound have constantly changed since it was founded in 1979, isn't known for making music exactly like this: alternately ragged, saloon-sublime, melancholy, star-gazing, and quietly tricky. But, really, Curlew is Cartwright and vice versa. He's the only one on every album, he's the leader, and he's the founder. The evolution evident in every new release is simply a reflection of Cartwright's own growth and ambition, and the musicians with which he surrounds himself seem to also be the influences he's digging at the time, the inspiration for the ideas germinating beneath his bald pate.

Sometime Memphis scenester Cartwright and guitarist Davey Williams, the closest thing to a group constant (he's on six of eight albums), are all that remain of the configuration that gave us 1998's Fabulous Drop, a sort of electric-funk exploding telegram in which you can almost hear the laughter. Curlew's new, less fusion-focused lineup includes Memphis' own Chris Parker (formerly of Big Ass Truck) on piano and Wurlitzer, Bruce Golden on drums, and Fred Chalenor (who has worked with Seattle's the Walkabouts) on bass. Listening to this latest, only occasionally frenzied Curlew offering may cause periodic drowsiness for the uninitiated dabbler or the tired old fan, but, given a close, patient listen or two, an ominous scrambling of free-form, funk, and chamber-jazz styles reveals itself -- imagine the protean John Coltrane, circa 1965's The Major Works of ..., with a couple of Quaaludes dissolving under his tongue.

A product of the Knitting Factory-based punk-jazz scene of '70s and '80s Manhattan, Cartwright is uncharacteristically less the mad, modal Coltrane disciple on this album, owing more to Coleman Hawkins' powerful, slow-burn method. Strangely, the voodoo'd piano of Parker, whose "Cold Ride" is the wildest composition of the bunch, seems to be the gravity pulling the rest of the band down to earth and more formal jazz territory.

This is an album full of passages reminiscent of progressive rock, and its slowly expository tunes literally break under their own weight -- in a good, postmodern way. On Chalenor's "Space Flight Cat," Golden's almost military drums accelerate beside Williams' eerie electric guitar, allowing Cartwright a little up-tempo blowing before switching to the breathy, autumnal approach of his own "Late December," a seven-minute browse through the halls of the dead. "Meet the Curlews" strikes a vein of bass to begin with, romps about a bit, then fractures its own melody, for good measure, with Williams' and Parker's respective solo forays. Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" seems to have influenced the initial section of "Lemon Bitter," one of the out-and-out coolest tunes on the album with its equal, rollicking participation from all the band.

The daring complexity of the 11 tunes on "Meet the Curlews!" assures us that, though Cartwright's sax is less dominant on this recording, he's still the man behind the curtain, and the show he puts on demands our attention. -- Jeremy Spencer

Grade: B+

C'Mon, C'Mon

Sheryl Crow

(Interscope/A&M)

At her worst, Sheryl Crow reminds me of my all-time least-favorite band, the Eagles, except she's a she, and in that case it makes all the difference in the world. An El Lay soft-rock chick at the bottom of her Kennett, Missouri, heart, when Crow regurgitates all those familiar romanticized road images and peaceful, easy feelings and wallows in the same kind of backstage, in-crowd vibe (guest appearances here from the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Nicks, and Gwyneth Paltrow!), at least she strips it all of the male chauvinism and casual misogyny that infect the Eagles' music. She lays the "Desperado" shtick on thick on the opening "Steve McQueen" (and, no, this is not the Drive-by Truckers' "Steve McQueen," for all five of you who are wondering), describing herself as an "all-American rebel" and a "freebird" and complaining, "All my heroes hit the highway," but the lyrics thankfully become more generic and less obtrusive after that.

When I'm able to ignore that her main pop function is to provide comfort food for classic-rock clingers who refuse to come to grips with the pop eruptions of the late '70s and who prefer the good old days before punk and disco and hip hop made everything so messy, I like Sheryl Crow. She's the kind of modest, down-to-earth gal who could sing a quintessential bit of Eagles post-hippie hedonism, Me-decade crap like "Lighten up while you still can/Don't even try to understand/Find a place to make your stand/And take it easy" and make me sing along rather than gag. And that's basically what she does on C'Mon, C'Mon's lead single, "Soak Up the Sun."

"Soak Up the Sun" is the most El Lay anthem in years, so laid back it makes Train sound as agitated as the Dead Kennedys. It's also the loveliest thing on the album, helped along by Special Guest Star Liz Phair, who only sings backup but whose sharp, understated style still dominates the song, inspiring dry vocals and crisp guitar lines the way the devil incarnate, Don Henley, encourages Crow to oversing shamelessly on the duet "It's So Easy" (Crow made the over-the-top vocals work on "If It Makes You Happy," but Henley pulls her toward Diane Warren/Celine Dion schmaltz here).

Elsewhere, Crow's best moments come when she forgoes the celeb backup, like on the title song, in which the novel 12-string acoustic lead makes it sound like an outtake from Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story (post-hippie roots rock of the gods), or the future radio hit "Hole in My Pocket," which updates Crow's sound all the way to, say, 1987. --Chris Herrington

Grade: B

Under Cold Blue Stars

Josh Rouse

(Rykodisc)

Josh Rouse's musical leanings have always centered around geography: His '98 debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, provided a vibrant flip side to Bruce Springsteen's depressing ode to the prairie state; 2000's Home centered on Rouse's adopted hometown of Nashville. Rouse's newest release is called Under Cold Blue Stars, and it's his most expansive album to date. With the title track, he unwinds his life story, replete with tales of wanderlust and guitars -- typical fodder for an alt-country album. Yet, despite the subject matter, Rouse is hardly constrained by the genre. Sure, he plays guitar-fueled power pop. But the music's deeper than that -- tape loops, horn sections, strings, and funky beats all contribute to the mix. Think sunnier Lambchop or countrified Yo La Tengo -- Rouse has links to both bands, and he effectively combines the off-the-wall beatific vibes of both groups with effortlessly soaring pop hooks. Don't miss the bright fuzz of "Feeling No Pain" -- in a perfect world, this radio-friendly number would take Rouse straight to the top of the charts. n -- Andria Lisle

Grade: B+

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