Short Cuts

Linda Smith
Preference: Selected Songs, 19871991
(Harriet)

Spare, honest, perceptive, and passionate in a peculiarly subdued way, singer-songwriter Linda Smith's deceptively simple songs seem to have been beamed in from a parallel universe. No fake earnestness. No calculatedly naive idealism. No artifice whatsoever.

These nineteen tracks, recorded at Smith's Baltimore home on a four-track cassette deck and drawn from four limited-edition tapes she issued between 1987 and 1991, oscillate mildly, her often plaintive words and engaging melodies working their way into the listener's consciousness indirectly. In most cases Smith builds her tunes around her rhythm guitar -- sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric -- and then fills out the sound with dabs of keyboard and snare drum, plus her own unadorned but oddly compelling vocals.

Throughout she muses on seemingly quotidian moments, both happy and sad, yet the overall effect can be unnerving, like hearing entries read from a stranger's journal. She comes across as conversational -- not confessional -- and has the good sense to undergird her reflections with buoyant hooks, especially on "The Space Between the Buildings," "Idea," "Confidence," and the almost epic (at least for Smith) "An Ideal View of the Ideal City."

Love-rocking young whippersnappers might cite a glancing similarity to members of the K Records crew (most notably Lois Maffeo), but Smith predated all that stuff. Her two covers -- a church-organ-fueled reading of the Raincoats' "In Love," and a creepy, sleepy take on the Bacharach-David nugget "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" -- completely subvert the originals. Elsewhere Smith's own "Telling Stories" resembles a great, lost, early T. Rex cut. (Harriet Records, P.O. Box 649, Cambridge, MA 02238)

-- Michael Yockel

B.B. King
Deuces Wild
(MCA)

Pity poor B.B. King. The revered bluesman has spent more than half of his storied career hoping to break through to the pop market. Not only has he failed, he has watched from the commercial sidelines while whey-faced teens such as Kenny Wayne Shepard, Johnny Lang, and Derek Trucks succeeded.

B.B.'s latest pitch for crossover acceptance is a duets-only album that pairs him with a dizzying variety of demographic niches -- er, musicians. It's not exactly a tribute album (most of the songs are traditional blues covers), but it has that same mutually parasitic feel, as if both King and his collaborators hope to benefit from the credibility they lend each other.

The fare ranges from deeply moving to downright embarrassing, with most tracks settling into the great middle ground of ho-humdom. What King needs are suitable foils for his sinewy fretwork. He finds one in Van Morrison, that drunken old Irishman whose soulful pipes carry off the soulful Celtic lament of "If You Love Me," and another in Willie Nelson, who lends his gorgeous tenor to an elegant rendition of "Night Life." If only Nelson and Van Morrison had paired up with B.B. for the other dozen songs.

Alas, they did not. And therefore we must suffer through the likes of Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, whose histrionic wailing on "Please Send Me Someone to Love" is nearly as annoying as Mick Jagger's wheezy harp on the utterly forgettable "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss."

Deuces Wild is a powerful reminder that the blues, as a genre, will only stretch so far before its emotional validity gives way. The further King veers from that genre, the more his talents feel squandered. Things get downright pitiful when poor B.B. attempts to rap with Heavy D. on the horrid duet "Keep It Coming." Keep it real would be more appropriate advice. Better to play for a dozen devoted fans than a thousand focus groups.

-- Steven Almond

Various Artists
Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe
(Mercury Records)

The nineteenth-century poet and fiction writer Edgar Allan Poe knew better than most that there's some warped quality of morbid curiosity inside every human being. Why else do we stop to gawk at car accidents or watch "America's Funniest Home Videos?" Quoth the late Allen Ginsberg: "Everything leads to Poe."

In reverence to the Godfather of Melancholy, the two-set CD Closed on Account of Rabies includes thirteen of Poe's poems and stories read by various musicians and actors. Hal Willner, the album's producer, is no stranger to compiling tribute albums: His previous projects include homages to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Walt Disney, Charles Mingus, and Federico Fellini, all of which featured wildly eclectic lineups -- and very mixed results. So it is with this collection, but this one offers far more hits than misses.

The voices here are perfect for their tasks: Marianne Faithfull's nicotine rasp, Gavin Friday's quavering tenor, and Gabriel Byrne's lilting accent each does justice to one of Poe's dark tales. Iggy Pop warbles and croaks his way through the neurotic masterpiece "The Tell-Tale Heart," while Christopher Walken delivers "The Raven" with his distinctive, halting cadence. Listening to the reedy Southern drawl of Dr. John (who reads "Berenice") is like sitting on a creepy uncle's knee while he's telling a particularly unsuitable story.

But the standout track by far is "Ulalume," read by the late Jeff Buckley. Ginsberg coached him on the reading, which is apparent in Buckley's precise phrasing and pronunciation. His clear, almost demure voice, coupled with a haunting string accompaniment, becomes absolutely other-worldly. Only Buckley could do justice to a line such as "These were the days my heart was volcanic as the scoriac rivers that rolled."

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