Short Cuts

Taja Sevelle
Toys of Vanity
(550 Music)

It's been nearly a decade since The Guy They Used To Call Prince gave Taja Sevelle a record deal. Rather than attending college, the young Minneapolis native moved to Los Angeles, released a self-titled debut, and suffered the misfortune of having her single, "Love Is Contagious," race up the British pop charts. From that point on, Sevelle -- a dance chanteuse in an era of burgeoning grungedom -- watched her career abruptly nose-dive. She eventually joined the Warner/Chappell stable as a songwriter.

With this long-delayed second disc, Sevelle proves that she's learned a thing or two in the school of hard knocks. Toys of Vanity exhibits the weary confidence of a pro popster approaching her thirties. Deftly produced by R.J. Rice (Poe, Demond), this is a collection of fluffy ballads with enough groove to keep the ass wagging and enough musical innovation to transcend the brain-dead realm of clubland. Barely.

The sultry sway of "I & I" manages excursions into jazz and ambient rock, while the snaky syncopation and skittering cymbals of "I Feel" take an unexpected turn toward bossa nova. "Us" is a torch song of the highest order, full of Sevelle's breathy alto and Rice's fluffy synth washes. The title track mines the same moony terrain, with a sing-along chorus that sticks in the brain and enough melodic filigree (a sampled flourish of trumpets, more layered keyboard) to counter the considerable low-end thump.

The lesser tracks here are better suited to providing sonic backdrops for the mall than the bedroom, and of these "Fleet of Angels" is surely the worst, a maudlin mess with artificial harp effects that would reduce Harpo Marx to tears. Likewise Sevelle's ill-conceived stab at scatting is likely to induce winces among jazz aficionados. But those of us with a weakness for big, shiny hooks could do worse than bite on Sevelle's bait.

-- Steven Almond

Pee Shy
Don't Get Too Comfortable
(Blue Gorilla/Mercury)

Tampa's brainy, lo-fi wonders Pee Shy still carry the goofy moniker but have largely ditched the "quirky" tag with the release of Don't Get Too Comfortable, their second disc under the Mercury mantle. The band has made surprising progress; think of the Go-Go's reinventing themselves as Luscious Jackson, Liz Phair, and Cibo Matto. OK, it's not quite that monumental, but it elevates Pee Shy from novel to significant in a single step.

The band's new, self-assured sound rides on strongly woven, cohesive songs. In fact, fans of Pee Shy's early minimalist material may consider this record a sellout. The Casio-driven rhythms and poetry-slamming testimonials of previous albums are replaced by a palette of lush aural adornment. Rest assured the band still operates outside of standard verse-chorus-verse conventions, but just by a hair.

Jenny Juristo (vocals, clarinet) and Cindy Wheeler (vocals, accordion) have matured as players; the role of Mary Catherine Guidera (bass) has been strengthened; and there's a new drummer, Billy Orrico. The result is a newfound sense of power and finesse. Much of the credit belongs to the album's producer, Brad Jones (Matthew Sweet, Jill Sobule), who proves to be Pee Shy's perfect mentor. His ear for bringing a diverse jumble of influences together provides the missing link between the band's ideas and its ability to fully execute them.

Songs such as "Bathroom Floor," "The Greatest Show on Earth," and "Fear" reveal Jones' skillful guidance. Jones indulges the band's well-known playfulness by offering them plenty of toys, both of the grown-up variety (percussion instruments, vibraphone, marimba, Moog synthesizer, and an electric bow for the guitar) and the kid kind (a Fisher-Price baby activity center and mini-pianos), ingeniously expanding their sound.

"Rope Waltz", "Jad Fair," and "Much Obliged" are fond nods to the early Southern alternative scene, which produced many of Pee Shy's predecessors. Without regressing into nostalgia, Pee Shy manages to resurrect the fun, experimental spirit of groups like the dB's, Let's Active, Guadalcanal Diary, and Fetchin Bones. Don't Get Too Comfortable sets a new watermark for the alternative South, and gives Wheeler, Juristo, and company a much-improved way to be weird and wonderful.

-- Robin Myrick

Gustavo Santaolalla
Ronroco
(Nonesuch)

Although Argentine folk music has enjoyed a revival of sorts with the current worldwide rediscovery of tango, little attention has been given to that country's rich indigenous traditions. Gustavo Santaolalla seems determined to end that oversight with Ronroco, an album of originals inspired by Argentina's rural folk music and played on traditional instruments.

Best known as a Latin pop producer for Mercedes Sosa and Cafe Tacuba, Santaolalla has fashioned a low-key labor of love that draws from folklore but retains a modern sensibility. There's something haunting about Santaolalla's multilayered compositions. On "Way Up," Andean pipes emerge from the hypnotic droning of what sounds like dozens of rapidly plucked guitar strings. The subtly shifting chords are lovely, but the song is also a disturbing blend of melody and dissonance, light and dark. On "Gaucho," Santaolalla plucks out a melancholy tune on a charango, a small, ten-string guitar made from an armadillo shell.

There are hints of vibraphones and tin whistles in the mix here, but the focus remains on the textures of the stringed instruments. "Atacama" returns to a wall-of-acoustic-guitars sound that reveals harmonic shifts amid a cloud of shimmering chords. Santaolalla's slowly developing melodies can be affecting, as in the lovely "Coyita," but after a while the wistfulness can be numbing. Still, there are sublime moments here, such as in the Eastern-flavored "De Ushuaia a la Quiaca." Santaolalla proves he can pluck a charango with the best of them on "Igiazu," another standout tune that evokes Spanish and indigenous traditions at the same time. You won't want to throw the album on during your next party, but you may find it a nice way to unwind afterwards.

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