But for all the heat it borrows from '60s music, Telegraph feels tepid. There are plenty of hooks with great, swirling guitars and velvety vocal harmonies (both attributable to Jones). But Davies' voice lacks passion and gives new meaning to the word nasal. He sounds like an uptight guy trying to be laid-back. Folksy songs such as "Main Street Electrical Parade" are painfully earnest but come across as just warped recollections of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Davies' previous projects -- such as Cardinal, a collaboration with another symphony-rocker, Eric Matthews -- have been sophisticated but snooty. Meticulously arranged with strings and brass, they sound like the Go-Betweens and the Chills as interpreted by a chamber orchestra. Now Davies wants to be a hippie. He's swapped his cerebral pretentions for something more down-to-earth, but even here he sounds too precious to be genuine. Though gritty and stripped-down, Telegraph still sounds like it came straight from Davies' armchair.

-- Daniel Lovering

Halo Benders
The Rebels Not In
(K)

A sort of indie supergroup from the Pacific Northwest, Halo Benders is a collaboration between Doug Martsch (guitar and vocals) of Built to Spill, Ralf Youtz (drums and guitar) of the Feelings, Wayne Flower (bass and drums) of Violent Green, and Calvin Johnson (guitar and vocals), who founded the bands Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Olympia-based label K Records. Steve Fisk, who has produced countless Northwest bands, chimes in on theremin, harmonium, organ, and synthesizer.

Halo Benders will probably prove to be of more interest to record collectors than the casual listener. Still, there is something to recommend the album to the rest of us: a combination of sweet, Beatles-inspired pop and grit-peppered country tunes. This CD's strengths lie in its members' combined knowledge of music, solid playing, and melodic gifts. On most tracks Johnson's woodsaw vocals carry the melody while Martsch's sugary voice provides the harmony. "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain" is a dreamy, swirly, pop gadget; "YourAsterisk" is country-edged and a little wobbly; "Lonesome Sundown" is a Tex Ritter-like lament.

But then there's the too-clever "Devil City Destiny" (with that always-wacky theremin) and "Surfer's Haze" (a Devoesque dismantling of surf rock). If Halo Benders was an actual band -- instead of just an amusing side project -- its capable members might stand a chance of producing a bona fide, beautiful record.

-- Curt Hopkins

Michael Fracasso
World in a Drop of Water
(Bohemia Beat)

Like any card-carrying singer-songwriter, Michael Fracasso is introspective, literate, and likes to tell tales of romantic damage. "Pride will go before you fall/You never waited after all," he sings on "Changed Your Mind," a pretty and plaintive ballad propelled by acoustic and slide guitars. Just a minute. Pretty and plaintive? Slide guitar? Haven't we heard this before? It's as familiar as the cloying lyrics "Your gift to me/Is the way that you laugh," which come from an acoustic track (what else?) titled "Your Gift to Me."

Yet despite the predictability and overly earnest lyrics, these songs are well-sketched stories, and that slide guitar can really rake over one's soul. Fracasso sings in a floating tenor, and certain songs here sound like Roy Orbison covering one of Marshall Crenshaw's midtempo pop gems. "Hospital" opens the album with a jump-start hook, and the second cut, "Chain-Link Fence," sets words about lost happiness to a sunny melody. In the wryly cynical rocker "Started on the Wrong Foot," Fracasso confesses, with a mixture of resignation and self-mockery, "the other foot's the wrong one too."

There are also moments of instrumental ornateness on World, well rendered by Charlie Sexton, who takes the producer's role and makes a plethora of musical contributions. The title track's complexity is fascinating, thanks mostly to Sexton's performances on drums, bass, cello, pump organ, piano, guitars (electric, twelve-string, and baritone), dumbek, and djembe. Surprisingly, it doesn't sound as if Sexton's craving attention; his contributions just add up to a brief symphony.

World in a Drop of Water is much more sonically textured than Fracasso's two previous efforts, Love & Trust (1993) and When I Lived in the Wild (1995). What really singles out Fracasso from the competition is the way he sometimes leans toward catchy '50s-rock melodies. It's as if he's momentarily forgotten that all singer-songwriters are supposed to live in minor-key purgatory. -- Theresa Everline

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