Short Cuts

Pulp
This Is Hardcore
(Island)

Jarvis Cocker's songs are much like Martin Amis' novels: The characters are distasteful, the situations sordid, the sex unsavory, and the humor cruel. It's an ugly picture of mankind stripped to the skivvies, its immorality dangling in the wind. Amis hides his obvious titillation at the scene under a veil of proper English values, but Cocker, who fronts the synth-pop band Pulp, is simply tickled pink by it.

Cocker has been acting like the detached debauchee for quite a while now -- ever since 1979, in fact, when he formed the band (then named Arabacus Pulp) in high school. Pulp's first introduction to America was "Do You Remember the First Time?" an alluringly cheap disco song taken from the album His 'n' Hers (1994). "I don't care what you're doing/No, I don't care if you screw him," Cocker sang in an anguished voice. Different Class, released in late 1995, produced Pulp's first true smash hit in the U.K., the working-class anthem "Common People." With his combination of pith and pathos, decadence and sentiment, the skinny, 35-year-old Cocker has become one of the most popular singers in England.

This Is Hardcore, Pulp's latest effort, is filled with more overblown dramas and shameful episodes, and as usual it's Cocker's wicked humor that makes it all palatable. Only he could sing a love song that contains the lines, "You are like the last drink I never should have drunk/You are the body hidden in the trunk."

Pulp is basically a four-piece backup band that plays romantic synth-rock while Cocker croons his sad songs. But This Is Hardcore reveals more musical experimentation than previous albums. "Help the Aged" tiptoes along like a public-service jingle while Cocker counsels, "Help the aged/One time they were just like you/ Drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue." A cool xylophone introduces "The Dishes" while Cocker muses sadly, "I'm not Jesus, though I have the same initials/I am the man who stays at home and does the dishes." Cocker also stretches his normally limited vocal range, doing a delightful Bowie imitation on "Party Hard," purring into the microphone like Barry White on "Seductive Barry," and even rasping like Bob Dylan on "TV Movie."

The album's shining moment is the pornographic title track, which slithers along on a sampled horn riff like the theme from an old spy film. "Leave your makeup on/And I'll leave on the light," Cocker snarls to his victim. The song builds to a crescendo of bad taste, with a tawdry string section swooning away as Cocker sings the repugnant refrain, "And that goes in there/And that goes in there...." It's a real piece of nastiness, but that's the basic essence of Pulp. Certainly not everybody will enjoy the taste it leaves in one's mouth.

-- Rafer Guzman

Joey Baron
Down Home
(Intuition)

On Down Home, the hotshot drummer Joey Baron has assembled an impressive quartet that features Ron Carter on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Arthur Blythe on saxophone, a dream team that could blow away the current contemporary jazz competition. After all, both the youngbloods and old lions of jazz have been flooding the market with dreck: Kenny G rules the charts, Herbie Hancock covers Sting, and McCoy Tyner collaborates with Burt Bacharach. Jazz is overdue for a shake-up, and Baron's group could have been the men for the job. But instead of cutting the crap, they've simply added to it.

Competent at best and ponderous at worst, Down Home registers as a major disappointment. The disc's eight songs, written exclusively by Baron, are generic, compromised, contemporary jazz grooves with cliched arrangements. Nothing here will get the blood flowing. "Mighty Fine," the album's opener, sets a meek, mild tone, and most of the other tracks are just supper-club fodder. The funky "What" is an exception, with Frisell playing a sinewy lead and Blythe blowing gamely, but it's nothing Maceo Parker hasn't already done better.

It's baffling why Baron didn't present this outfit with more rewarding, provocative material. Because the songs are so weak, the players (especially Blythe) perform at levels far below their capabilities. With the exception of Frisell's signature tone and occasional sidelong riff, the playing is simply nondescript. No one seems inspired enough to step forward and make a memorable gesture. As a result Down Home collapses under its own mediocrity.

-- John Lewis

Richard Davies
Telegraph
(Flydaddy)

On his new release, Richard Davies abandons the delicately orchestrated sound of his earlier work, the mark that won him praise from the British music press and his corduroy-jacketed fans. Telegraph draws on lean singer-songwriter rock from the '60s and '70s (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, among others) rather than the studio latticework of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that clearly inspired Davies in the past. By adding a dash of psychedelic trickery courtesy of Ronald Jones, the guitarist for the Flaming Lips, Davies seems intent upon re-creating the sound of American pop music circa 1969.

Davies, the Australian singer-songwriter and former leader of the Moles, recently moved to Woodstock, New York, and recorded Telegraph in a studio there. His trippy lyrics stir up kaleidoscopic visions -- "Imaginary farms/A dome for every barn/ You could have a gravity charity" -- and the music undeniably mimics everyone from the Buffalo Springfield to Carole King to the Lovin' Spoonful. Included in the mix are twanging guitars, no-frills drumming, and chunky Fender Rhodes piano chords à la Billy Preston.

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