Set the Twilight Reeling
Lou Reed (Warner Bros. 46159)
Some songwriters may seek the universal, but not Lou Reed. He'd much rather explore his own inner world, and while that keeps his work from sounding like anyone else's, it also makes it maddeningly difficult to relate to "Set the Twilight Reeling." There's nothing wrong with drawing on personal experience or childhood memories, but it's hard to imagine the listener who didn't grow up in Brooklyn when Reed did that would share the passion -- or even understand the geography -- of "Egg Cream." At least the average fan will get the gist of that song; what on earth are we to make of "Hookywooky," which punctuates its love-song lyrics with an utterly nonsensical chorus? Or "Sex with Your Parents," which turns out to be a lengthy and not particularly clever play on a familiar multisyllabic profanity? Perhaps the best bet would be to ignore the words altogether and focus on the music. After all, Reed's guitar-playing is sharper than it's ever been -- check out the Hendrixian squall he sets up in the seven-minute "Riptide" -- while his band weaves rock, folk, punk and jazz into a single fabric.
Excursions: Remixes and Rare Grooves
The Brand New Heavies (Delicious Vinyl 35535)
In a better world, the Brand New Heavies' "Excursions: Remixes and Rare Grooves" would be a greatest hits album. But as none of the 12 tunes collected here have cracked the American pop charts, the word "hits" wouldn't really apply. Our loss, I'm afraid. Few contemporary bands have captured the jazzy spirit of '70s funk as effectively as this British group, and in the five years since its debut, it has expanded both its songcraft and groovemanship. "Excursions" presents the full range of the Heavies' sound, from roiling instrumental workouts along the lines of "O-Fa-Fu" to classy retro-soul tunes such as "Brother Sister" and the irrepressible "Keep It Coming." There's no doubt that the band has sufficient pop instincts to make a splash; if the insanely catchy "Dream On Dreamer" doesn't make you lunge for the repeat button, the group's lithe, funky rethink of "Midnight at the Oasis" surely will. And though the Heavies haven't quite mastered the kind of bottom-heavy funk Dr. Dre has made his stock-in-trade, the chewy bass and limber improvisations of "Country Funkin'" show that the band could certainly give the J.B.'s a run for their money.
Ten Years After
Tommy Keene (Matador Ole 177)
Like Alex Chilton or the Paley Brothers, Tommy Keene has been revered by power-pop enthusiasts and ignored by almost everyone else. With any luck, though, "Ten Years After" will change all that. It isn't just that this is the Washington native's best-sounding album to date, conveying all the sonic might of his stage sound without compromising the charm of his melancholy melodies. The album is an absolute feast of fully cranked guitar and catchy pop choruses. From "We Started All Over," with its Who-like instrumental interplay and soaring minor-key chorus, to the roaring guitars and heartbreak vocals of "Turning on Blue," Keene blends power and passion with practiced ease. But it's not all full-tilt rockers; "If You're Getting Married Tonight" is both endearing and affecting in its blend of acoustic guitar and whining pedal steel, while "Before the Lights Go Down" builds beautifully from quiet desperation to carefully restrained abandon. Factor in tunes like the Paul Westerberg-ish "Good Thing Going" and the driving "Compromise," and you too may wonder why more Americans aren't keen on Keene.
Graham Haynes (Antilles 314 529 039)
If "fusion" has become something of a dirty word among jazz fans, it's probably because few of its practitioners have expanded much on the original formula. Fortunately, Graham Haynes bucks that trend with "Transition," an album that may have its roots in the Miles Davis sound of the early '70s but also takes cues from both worldbeat and hip-hop. Take the title tune. After opening with a sampled and heavily treated Arabic vocal, it slides into a funky stew of fatback drums and wikki-wikki scratch (courtesy "Catfish" Fred Alias and DJ Logic) spiced by the acid guitar of Vernon Reid. Then Haynes' cornet enters, and suddenly, it's Davis' "Bitches Brew" all over again. The music continues to shift focus as the album progresses, presenting the listener with everything from the delicate arabesques of "Walidiya" (recorded with Tunisian vocalist Amina) to the blurry textures and oblique chord clusters of "Harmonic Convergence." It's never quite what you'd expect, and always a delightful surprise.