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."

When Poe's works are sung and set to music, the results aren't as successful. The musical translation of "To Helen" and "The Haunted Palace" (featuring Ed Sanders of the legendary Fugs) end up sounding overstylized. "The Haunted Palace," however, actually does benefit from a little grunge guitar (Knox Chandler).

It's hard to go wrong when paying tribute to an author such as Poe, whose crystalline language -- and ability to bleed a plot for every last drop of suspense -- remain unequaled. Yet the artists assembled here seem to have a deep reverence for Poe's work -- and that, more than anything, is what makes this compilation above average.

-- Liesa Goins

Cheri Knight
The Northeast Kingdom
(E-Squared Records)

The second solo album from bassist Cheri Knight leans heavily on straight-down-the-middle roots-rock that's crafted and seasoned. Along with two of her former Blood Oranges bandmates (Mark Spencer on guitar and Jimmy Ryan on mandolin), an impressive crew of musicians assists Knight with this project: Steve Earle on electric and acoustic guitars (he also coproduced the CD with Ray Kennedy), Will Rigby (onetime drummer for the dB's), Tammy Rogers (a Nashville fiddler who plays with the Dead Reckoners), and the exquisite Emmylou Harris.

The Celtic-influenced numbers "The Hatfield Side" and "Dar Glasgow" particularly stand out; the latter is especially haunting, with a harmonium washing into all the corners. The chorus of the stunning ballad "Crawling" pulls and aches, while Spencer's fierce guitar work and Rogers' no-holds-barred fiddling infuse "Sweetheart" with some lustrous musical intensity. Nevertheless, a few of the songs -- the midtempo "Roses in the Vine," the countryish "White Lies," the loping, Wilco-like pop song "Black Eyed Susie" -- stay limp. They drag along, ready but not able to catch a breeze.

One problem is Knight's voice. Although clear and steady, it's emotionally flat, and there's not much to notice in Knight's delivery. In "Crawling," Emmylou Harris sings the simple line "I'd be a fool" as if the sound of the words coming from her mouth made her flinch. But I'm not sure how Knight delivers the line, because when the two women sing it I only want to hear Harris' little heartbreak. Nothing on the rest of the album convinces me I'm making the wrong choice here.

Knight certainly knows how to write melodies, sometimes gorgeous ones. The title track is a sultry, dusky tune that alone earns Knight a special dispensation for the less interesting moments. The Northeast Kingdom is a solid disc, but it won't satiate those who like a little extravagance with their melancholy.

-- Theresa Everline

Hum
Downward is Heavenward
(RCA/BMG)

When My Bloody Valentine released Isn't Anything in 1988, it looked as though rock music would never be the same. A slow, loud, roaring, gorgeous disc with barely audible vocals drowning under an ocean of guitars, Isn't Anything was like nothing that had come before it -- and was only the precursor to My Bloody Valentine's landmark album, Loveless (1991). For lack of a better term, the band's sound was dubbed "bliss-rock," and other like-minded groups began surfacing: the Pale Saints, A.R.Kane, the Catherine Wheel, et al.

Those of us who thought this sound was both revelatory and revolutionary were disappointed when it proved to be nothing more than a limited and short-lived subgenre. Basically, there was just no competing with grunge in the early '90s, and it didn't take long for the "shoegazers," as they were scornfully called, to fade from memory.

My Bloody Valentine hasn't released a full-length CD in eight years, but the bliss-rock torch is still carried high by Hum, which formed in Champaign, Illinois, back in 1989. Downward is Heavenward, Hum's second release on RCA, is a beautiful album, highly melodic and Romantic with a capital R. Matt Talbott, on guitar and vocals, is the band's leading light, and his vision is a clear one: On every song, Bryan St. Pere (on drums) and Jeff Dimpsey (on bass) create a deep rhythmic basin that holds the swirling guitars of Talbott and Tim Lash.

The opening track, "Isle of the Cheetah," sets the standard for the rest of the album, with its gentle/brutal passages and Talbott's earnest young voice. The main difference between Hum and past bliss-rockers is that Talbott wants his lyrics heard. They don't make any apparent sense, but they add to the music's high-revving emotional quality. On "Comin' Home," Talbott laments: "Clearly in this afternoon/Clearly we will have to turn/ And come home soon." It's not the words but the somber tone of Talbott's voice that makes the chorus so affecting.

Hum does shoegaze here and there, and some of the songs fidget too long before getting started. There's a particularly poignant chord that graces "If You Are to Bloom," but it doesn't come until the song is halfway over. The midtempo "Ms. Lazarus" barely gets off the ground at all. Still, the lunging guitars on "Isle of the Cheetah" and "Green to Me" provide quite a rush. At this rate Hum may be able to keep bliss-rock alive until it comes back in fashion.

-- Rafer Guzman

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