Short Cuts

The Pursuit of Happiness
The Wonderful World of...
(Iron Music Group)

Over the course of five albums, from 1988's bracingly smart Love Junk to the current, equally likable The Wonderful World of..., the Toronto-based Pursuit of Happiness has cranked out a welter of relentlessly brilliant hard-pop songs -- wry, witty, winsome young-adult novellas that brim with Velcro-like melodies and ringing, stinging power chords. Not that many people in the U.S. have noticed. Well okay, the band broke through briefly in 1989 with the winking "I'm an Adult Now," but since then, nothing. A real pity. And yet TPOH singer/songwriter/guitarist Moe Berg soldiers on.

Possessed of a sharp eye for the minutiae that define love, lust, and romance, Berg sprinkles his Wonderful World boy-girl sonic narratives with significant details: "You asked for my phone number/So you could not call me on purpose," he sings in his appealingly flat voice on the pounding, bitter breakup saga "The Truth," while on the hook-heavy "I Like You" -- the best song Todd Rundgren never wrote -- Berg, in signature barbed-compliment mode, avers, "You're shiny enough/To attract a few flies/But not so many/That I get in fistfights with big guys." That song, along with a handful of others here -- notably "I'm Just Happy to Be Here" and "What You Did to My Girl" -- feature a compressed poppy compression and sighing background vocals (the latter courtesy of long-time TPOH guitarist Kris Abbott), which buoy the proceedings without ever rendering them sticky-sweet. Hardly a false step throughout. (Iron Music Group, 17357 Tribune St., Granada Hills, CA 91344)

-- Michael Yockel

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth
(Bloodshot)

Upstart indie label Bloodshot Records refers to its twang-happy products as "insurgent country." And with a roster that has included boundary-bashing artists such as the Waco Brothers (the Clash meets honky-tonk), the Old 97's (punk/Beatles-pop/bluegrass), and Moonshine Willy (hillbilly gone butch), such an anarchic description seems apropos, not just a delicious marketing term. Chicago-based singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks is another in the Bloodshot stable, first found horsing around on his 1996 debut Country Love Songs. On that album Fulks, who looks more like a British football hooligan than a big-hatted hit-maker, not only embraced the classic sounds of postwar country music but updated them with a Nineties college-rock sensibility. The edgy "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" put overdose and depression in the driver's seat, while the ridiculous, frat-like sing-along "The Scrapple Song" bemoaned the quality of Keystone State edibles.

The new South Mouth follows suit with the swingin' "Fuck This Town," easily Fulk's -- and maybe even Bloodshot's -- most in-your-face song to date. It's one giant, cathartic kiss-off to the pop-minded country music machine that is Nashville. "This ain't country-western/It's just soft-rock feminist crap," spews Fulks in a nasal twang. "Can't get noticed/Can't get found/Can't get a cut/So fuck this town," goes the equally venomous chorus. Insurgent country? Definitely.

"Fuck" may be the definitive contempo anti-Nashville rant, but it seems like a bit of a blathering black sheep when compared to the core of South Mouth. Like Dwight Yoakam in his early years, Fulks is at his best when performing stripped-down, neotraditional country tunes, all roadhouse pianos, six-string and steel guitars, and steady backbeats. There're plenty of shuffles, swing tunes, and laments to make the beer go down easy: the brokenhearted "Heart, I Wish You Were Here," the Beatles-esque "I Push Right Over," and a stunning, high-lonesome murder ballad entitled "South Richmond Girl." And if you consider songs such as "Goodbye, Good-Lookin'" and "Busy Not Crying," both of which feature enough pep and clever lyrics to recall some of the (less disposable) stuff issued by the country mainstream, suddenly all this revolutionary talk sounds so silly. Color me a foolish optimist, but it's not that hard to imagine Fulks one day landing a hit or at least writing one for an artist with the appropriate studly stature and quasi-George Jones croon. And then you know what's really going to sound silly? That song he does about saying adios to Nashville. So much for insurgency. (Bloodshot Records, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613)

-- Neal Weiss

CRU
Da Dirty 30
(Violator)

In an era of wholesale melodic theft, it's refreshing to hear a hip-hop crew appropriate riffs as innovatively as CRU. About half of the 30 tracks on this audacious debut are built around samples, though you'd be hard-pressed to recognize more than a handful. "Just Another Case," for instance, is built around a tasty open jazz chord lifted from a more obscure passage in the Main Ingredient's "Everybody Plays the Fool." The baritone sax and bubbling bass line that propel "Pronto" are pinched from Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Or consider "Up North": It showcases an interpolation of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" that exposes Coolio ("Gangsta's Paradise") as little more than a copycat rapper.

This New York City trio, proteges of the legendary KRS-One, prove equally adept at constructing their own song lines. "The Ebonic Plague" slinks along to a hypnotic piano loop, with guest MC Ras Kas laying down an epic flow promising doom to verbal pretenders: "We'll Joe Pesci-'em, no question." Primary songwriter Yogi is CRU's most insightful and smoothest rhymer. Over a chiming synth lick that calls to mind Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (remember the riff in "Theme from the Exorcist"?), he rasps out winning sobriquets such as "I know we got big hips/It makes us run fast though/I know I'm still a slave calling black women 'ho.'"

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