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Paul Westerberg deserves to be as popular with fans as with critics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paul Westerberg

Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol 13535)

It's not hard to understand why so many critics and musicians adore Paul Westerberg's songs. The mystery, frankly, has been why the rest of the world doesn't share their enthusiasm.

A tunesmith who has been honing his craft since the early '80s, when he fronted the Minneapolis-based punk band the Replacements, Westerberg presents work that is an almost perfect blend of pop savvy and emotional intelligence. As such, he's generally considered on par with such pop geniuses as Elvis Costello and former Box Tops and Big Star front man Alex Chilton.

But where Costello and Chilton have enjoyed both popular and critical success, Westerberg remains a mostly underground enthusiasm. And if the torturously titled "Suicaine Gratifaction" is any indication, that lack of success is beginning to take its toll.

That's not to say Westerberg comes on like some arty elitist. On the contrary, his songs remain as catchy as ever, the sort of thing most listeners would hum without a second thought.

But buried beneath those easily absorbed melodies is a worldview so curdled and convoluted it's hard to tell whether Westerberg is being sarcastic or downright misanthropic. "I'm the Best Thing That Never Happened," for instance, is a shambling, Stones-style rocker that finds its protagonist proudly telling the woman who dumped him what a mistake she made. Then there's "Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeves," a dreamily upbeat number about a couple who are "identically sad" -- and, thus, perfectly matched. Or "It's a Wonderful Lie," the tale of a con man who gets by on attitude and appearances and wonders why nobody notices how hollow he is.

That's not to say Westerberg has totally soured. Although the quietly beautiful "Sunrise Always Listens" starts off as an ode to self-pity, with a protagonist who is not only talking to himself but beginning to "bore the only guy who's listening," its chorus is disarmingly upbeat: Because "the sunrise always listens," the promise of each new day makes it worth keeping on.

Those moments are few and far between, however. For every bit of rock and roll bliss, like the snarling, syncopated guitar licks that cap "Fugitive," we're given numerous portraits of darkness and doubt, like the sweetly despairing "Self Defense."

That doesn't make "Suicaine Gratifaction" a bad album, necessarily. Truth is, listening to it made me hope Westerberg has a big hit with the album -- if only because it'd be nice to see the guy cheer up. ***

-- J. D. Considine

Country

Kelly Willis

What I Deserve (Rykodisc 10458)

If ever a country singer deserved a bigger audience, it's Kelly Willis. A good writer with a great voice, she's one of the brightest lights on the Austin scene but virtually unknown elsewhere. With any luck, though, "What I Deserve" will change all that. A traditionalist at heart, Willis has no use for the prefab, rock-derived sound currently popular in Nashville; the most modern she gets here is on "Fading Fast," which comes on like a cross between Gram Parsons and Graham Parker. Mostly, though, she applies her tart, heart-worn voice to tunes as down-home as the dusty, honky-tonk blues of "Got a Feelin' for Ya" or the mournful "Happy With That." Definitely an album worth seeking. ***1/2

-- J. D. Considine

Pop/rock

Sparklehorse

Good Morning Spider (Capitol 36671)

How can a band be rootsy and postmodern at the same time? Simple: by first playing the music straight, then playing around with the sound in the studio. At least, that's the way Sparklehorse does it on "Good Morning Spider." Mark Linkous, the one-man band who basically is Sparklehorse, has no trouble writing tuneful, traditional rock songs, from the Neil Young-style introspection of "Maria's Little Elbows" to the raucous "Sick of Goodbyes" (which may be the best Cracker song Cracker never recorded). But Linkous can't resist tinkering with his recordings, deconstructing the mild, Beatlesque "Sunshine" with dub studio effects or undercutting the power-pop melody of "Pig" with several layers of distortion. This is not your father's guitar rock -- but that's what makes it interesting. ***

-- J. D. Considine

DJ Brian

hardesertrance2 (Moonshine 80096)

As dance music, "trance" aspires to exactly that -- attaining a sense of zoned-out bliss through the kinetic repetition of techno beats. It's not a particularly melodic style, relying mostly on slowly shifting textures for its sense of compositional development, but that doesn't mean it's useless as listening music. Consider "hardesertrance2," a collection of trance tracks mixed by DJ Brian. Taken as "singles," it's almost impossible to differentiate between the selections here; if you didn't watch the CD display change, you might not even notice when one track morphs into the next. But treated as an overall soundscape, the album is as invigorating as it is hypnotic, the musical equivalent of getting lost in the patterns of a Persian rug. Strangely addictive. ***

-- J. D. Considine

Soundtrack

'Footloose'

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia 65781)

It was a cheesy but endearing movie. Now it's a popular but panned musical. But the hit-laden soundtrack to "Footloose," re-released for its 15th anniversary, is sheer sonic '80s euphoria, especially for devoted disciples of the dated Kevin Bacon vehicle. As Kenny Loggins' title track begins, envision the footwear of the opening credits tapping. Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy" conjures up the sweet scenes of slick, citified Ren teaching his spastic hick friend Willard to dance. Bonnie Tyler's infectiously melodramatic "Holding Out for a Hero" evokes the suspenseful tractor race on which Ren's honor hangs. And Sammy Hagar's "The Girl Gets Around" rhythmically revisits wild child Ariel's balancing act between two fast-moving cars. Shalamar's "Dancing in the Sheets," Loggins' "I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man)" and more make this seminal soundtrack almost paradise for fans and newcomers alike. ****

-- Tamara Ikenberg

Worldbeat

The Chieftains

Tears of Stone (RCA Victor 63431)

Putting the Chieftains together with some of the most influential women in rock may seem like a marketing man's dream -- "It's Lilith Fair meets St. Patrick's Day!" -- but "Tears of Stone" is a remarkable album nonetheless. Although some of the guests pull the Irishmen over to their side of the pop world, as Joni Mitchell does on "Magdalene Laundries," other performances find the singers revealing the Celt within. Bonnie Raitt, for instance, has never sounded so, um, bonnie as she does on "A Stor Mo Chroi," and even Akiko Yanno comes across like a fine colleen -- despite the fact that she does "Whiskey in the Jar" in Japanese! Add in stellar performances by Natalie Merchant, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Corrs, and "Tears of Stone" is guaranteed to evoke smiles. ***1/2

-- J. D. Considine

Pub Date: 02/25/99

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