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Short Cuts

Waits and Wilco get epic on new releases.

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Alice

Blood Money

Tom Waits

(Anti-)

Like the last opium dream of a drowned sailor oozing up from the bone-laden depths of Davy Jones' toilet, Tom Waits' Alice will give you night sweats and make you nostalgic for the days when ghosts were imaginary and innocence seemed possible, if not exactly obtainable.

Unlike his last album, 1999's acclaimed Mule Variations, which yanks you up by the lapels with the first notes and doesn't let go until an hour or so after the disc has finished playing, Alice sneaks up on little cat feet and chokes you to death with a satin hankie. Blood Money, the second album Waits is releasing on the Anti- label this month, is not nearly as engaging. It is an interesting if monotonous affair that contains some of Waits' darkest and most desperate lyrics, but taken as a whole, it is his most disappointing effort since the forgettable One From the Heart soundtrack.

Both Alice and Blood Money, like the jarring psychotic freak show of 1993's The Black Rider, are the result of Waits' and his wife/writing partner Kathleen Brennan's collaboration with Robert Wilson, a lanky Texan famous for staging visually stunning avant-garde theatricals. Also, like The Black Rider, both new releases wallow in the seedy, Teutonic jazz pioneered by Kurt Weill -- a sound Waits first introduced on his album Swordfishtrombones, heralding his graduation from mumbling laureate of the narcotic American night to citizen of the world and chief barker at the carnival of the doomed.

Alice is, to a certain degree, based on the life and works of Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, but don't expect any songs about white rabbits or vanishing cats. Instead, Waits has embraced Carroll's own proclivity for taking rope-skipping rhymes and other bits of childhood nonsense and filtering them through a sinister sieve, resulting in lines like the title song's "Arithmetic, arithmetock, turn the hands back on the clock/How did the ocean rock the boat?/How did the razor find my throat?" Shortly after announcing that "the dish ran away with the spoon," in "Everything You Can Think," Waits offers, with only the faintest trace of morbidity, "We are decomposing as we go."

Throughout Alice, commonplace activities become arcane rituals. Who knows what might happen should you trace someone's name twice while ice skating? It might invite love or madness. And there is plenty of old-fashioned phantasmagoria as well. "Poor Edward" jauntily recounts the well-known tale of Edward Mordake, an English nobleman born with a second face -- or "devil twin" -- on the back of his head. According to legend, the twin's lips "jibbered" constantly and never slept but spoke "forever of such things as they only speak of in hell."

Of all the fine songs on Alice, the bizarre "Kommienezuspadt" leaves the most lasting impression. It combines complete foolishness with something unknowably vile, like an abandoned ice cream truck painted top to bottom with clowns and balloons but filled with the refrigerated limbs of dead children.

To achieve the timeless sound of a haunted 19th-century midway, Waits has once again pulled out the trombones, trumpets, vibes, pump organ, and pneumatic calliope. Many of Alice's finest moments, however, come courtesy of the Stroh violin, a special instrument fitted with a brass bell for amplification. It slices jaggedly through the mix like an aluminum shiv and is capable of shivering even the sturdiest timbers.

Blood Money sounds less like a Tom Waits recording and more like a collection of outtakes from Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera with a little Henry Mancini thrown in for good measure. It is, front to back, a cynic's litany that abandons Waits' rumbling, disconcertingly subtle street poetry for Brecht's vicious pedantry. "No man's happy 'til he dies" and "all the good in the world, you can fit in a thimble" are typical of Blood Money's lyrical content. Twisted rhumbas and wicked waltzes remind us that "the Devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand" and that nobody, especially not a woman, can be trusted. Unfortunately, the songs are too similar musically, making each of the recording's wonderfully dark parts far superior to the whole. Only the sweet waltz "Coney Island Baby" and the seemingly sweet (but dark at the corners) "Lullaby" offer any sonic diversity. On the other hand, when Waits grumbles lines like "I want that beggar's eyes, a winning horse, a tidy Mexican divorce," it hardly matters what the band is doing. -- Chris Davis

Grades: A (Alice); B (Blood Money)

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco

(Nonesuch)

If nothing else, it's a damn good story. Small band with big cred makes arty, ambitious album. Big, bad record company doesn't hear a radio single and won't release it. Band raises $50,000 to buy back the masters, releases the album to fans online, and gets a sweet deal from a label (actually owned by the same parent megacorporation as the first label) known to be artist-friendly.

Such are the events that befell post-alt-country kingpins Wilco during the last year or so, but the story's not over just yet. Officially and enigmatically titled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the arty, ambitious album that freaked Reprise out has finally been released by Nonesuch, and its reception -- both critical and commercial -- will surely cast this story in a new light. If Foxtrot is a disappointment, the story is pointless, but if it's a triumph, the story ascends to David-and-Goliath legend.

Fortunately, Foxtrot sounds like Wilco's career album. The songs here buzz with an energy that is simultaneously earthy and spacey, suggesting an American Radiohead equivalent but with a broader emotional palette and a better grasp of songcraft.

The production is, predictably, more sophisticated, resourceful, and original than that on previous Wilco efforts -- including 1999's florid Summerteeth -- thanks to the influence of Chicago musician/producer Jim O'Rourke. Occasionally, he and Wilco overreach, as on the leadoff track, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," which overflows with errant pianos, keyboard squiggles, ambient synth washes, echoing feedback, and arrhythmic percussion. But the tracks that follow are much more restrained, even minimal at times. "Kamera," for example, shambles along on a bare-bones drum shuffle, while an ominous, echoing piano haunts the bleak "Ashes of American Flags."

Singer Jeff Tweedy has always had an easy intimacy in his voice as well as a unique Midwestern soulfulness that most alt-country golden boys lack, but here it seems stronger and more commanding, more personal and emotional. His impressionistic lyrics, unrushed chorus, and laid-back delivery give "Jesus, Etc." its lite-A.M. ambience and "Poor Places" its strange, uplifting hopefulness. On the standout "Heavy Metal Drummer," he waxes wistfully nostalgic for "the heavy metal bands we used to go see at the landing in the summer." It's a sincere, sweetly unironic reminiscence, capped with a near-perfect couplet: "I missed the innocence I've known/Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned."

So it looks like this story will have a happy ending. In its first week of release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot debuted at number 13 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, selling approximately 56,000 copies -- nearly half as many as Summerteeth has sold in three years. Such unexpected commercial success is a middle finger to Reprise, but it's not as impressive as the creative triumph: This record marks the first time Wilco have managed to assimilate all their strong influences into a wholly original, completely idiosyncratic sound. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

Testament: The Complete

Slash Recordings

The Blasters

(Warner Brothers/Rhino)

After listening to the two-CD Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings, it's easy to hear why the Blasters' music remained out of print for so long. It has nothing to do with the band's creative output either. For in spite of the lost, mythical early rock-and-roll pleasures the band offers -- short, punchy songs, crisp and tightly structured lyrics that trade metaphorical meaning for plain old human truth, and an elastic, relentless piano-saxophone-drums rhythm section that trumps the pickup band who successfully kept up with a demonic Jerry Lee Lewis on Live at the Hamburg Star Club, 1962 -- the Blasters' aesthetic was as anachronistic then as it is now.

With the exception of their rereleased debut LP, Testament blazes through the Blasters' whole catalog at warp speed: three full albums, a live, expanded all-covers concert EP in London, and a handful of worthy outtakes. Disc one includes their finest album, 1983's Non-Fiction, and features guitarist Dave Alvin's loveliest lyrics, many of which dwell on uncomfortable places to sleep -- ditch, Cadillac backseat, bus station, in bed next to your girlfriend. Disc two contains their last album, 1985's Hard Line, and its snazzy production suffuses the songs with the melancholy of a failed sellout. Yet it also acts as a courageous, belated answer to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., complete with songs featuring affable losers and assaults on racism and politics that even Reagan couldn't have misread.

Perhaps their anonymity stems from the fact that the Blasters played vintage rockabilly, R&B, and roots-rock as though it had developed along the lines of funk: Every instrument, including Phil Alvin's hiccuping drawl, registered as a beat before it registered as a signifier. And, really, where can you go with that? Straight to the dance floor, I say. -- Addison Engelking

Grade: A

Lost In Revelry

The Mendoza Line

(Misra)

Maintaining healthy intimate relationships in one's 20s often seems tantamount to nursing an ailing bonsai tree -- a tediously detailed affair with a grim prognosis. The Mendoza Line, a group of transplanted Southerners in Brooklyn, are the type of overcerebral, alcoholic kids who, despite themselves, are continually channeling all their energies into disengaging from whatever amorous briar patch they find themselves ensnared.

Timothy Bracy, one of the co-founders and principal songwriters, recently found himself cast as cuckold after their last record, when longtime girlfriend and fellow group co-founder Margaret Maurice left him (and the band) for a cabinetmaker in his 30s referred to as "Uncle Michael" by Bracy in a recent edition of the group's alarmingly confessional promotional manifesto. And if I haven't gotten Dynasty enough for you already, enter new co-songwriter Shannon McArdle from stage left. The intensity level doesn't dip at all as the emotional volleying between her and Bracy present them as embittered heirs of Richard and Linda Thompson's doomed bedroom dramas. You know, but in a more WB, "rebound-y" way.

All of the pair's rawboned "misunderstandings" are couched in grad school obliqueness and scruffy country-rock. McArdle's standout twang is especially effective on "Something Dark" and "The Way of the Weak." And, yes, the songs are as morose as their titles. The opening track on this exercise in shambling Americana, "Damn Good Disguise," obviously originated as a counselor sing-along at that summer camp where they used to groom all the New Dylans. But the fact that the Mendoza Line are sharp enough to dissect a hopeless one-night stand on the beery lament "Mistakes Were Made" doesn't mean they can do one damn preventative thing when love, or just sex, threatens to get all raspy and sad.

But what kind of optimism can we expect from this group of "beautiful losers," as Leonard Cohen would have called them? They cast their lot with all the sad sacks when they chose to name themselves after a sweetly lyrical baseball statistic, a batting average below .200 or .215 (depending on who you talk to) held by the spirit-crushingly sub-par Mexican shortstop, Mario Mendoza.

-- David L. Dunlap Jr.

Grade: B+

Buzzkunst

ShelleyDevoto

(Cooking Vinyl/spinART)

Caveat emptor: This is not a Buzzcocks record in any shape or form. For those of you who may remember the first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, from 1977 (one of the very first U.K. punk records) with any measure of affection, this is not a follow-up to that recording. This is a screech-off between two shrill middle-aged men (Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto from the version of the Buzzcocks heard on Spiral Scratch) who should never have reunited for musical purposes.

This collaboration is much more like a successor to the dull mess that singer Howard Devoto purveyed with his first post-Buzzcocks group, Magazine. Except this time, Devoto drags poor old Pete Shelley along for the misguided trip. Horrible songs, miserable lyrics, new-wave yodeling that devolves into frog-like croaking, and that awful synth sound that you thought died with Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, and other knob-twiddling tea bags. It's all here, and Devoto sounds completely undiminished in every sense. Hopefully, Shelley and Devoto won't be back for another installment. This is perhaps the worst new-wave revival record ever or the best album Gary Numan never made. Gentlemen, please stop. -- Ross Johnson

Grade: D

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