Short Cuts

Dwight Yoakam
A Long Way Home
(Reprise)

Right in the middle of his fancy acting work in Sling Blade and The Newton Boys, Dwight Yoakam releases an album that reminds us what classic country music is really all about: dumping someone, getting dumped by someone, feeling like crud. In A Long Way Home, his 11th album, Yoakam goes back to his early honky-tonk style: acoustic instrumentation with a taste of bluegrass and lyrics that make you want to drink longneck beers until you collapse weeping.

This is said to be Yoakam's most personal album to date; it's certainly the first one he's written without collaborators. The tone is sad and bitter, yet romantic. On "Yet to Succeed," he sings, "Please don't start me crying, because I'll go on for days/It don't take a lot, but once it starts, it stays." The song is a melancholy slow dance of echoing steel guitar and heartbreak. On the meaner side of the same coin is "The Curse," which wishes love on someone as if it were cancer: "Don't you sleep/Don't you have a single moment's peace/Just walk through the darkness with fears that are deep/And don't you even sleep."

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Yoakam explores a variety of styles within the traditional country genre. "Only Want You More" is a reckless rockabilly stomp about a masochistic romance. "These Arms" tells the story of a man who creates his own misery. With its brisk beat and lonesome plea for a pretty woman, "Listen" sounds like a Roy Orbison tune. And "Traveler's Lantern" is an Appalachian lament in which even religion offers little hope. Yoakam sings: "Won't you set out a traveler's lantern/Just a small light, that they might see/To guide them back home before they wander/Into the dark billows that crash on the sea."

It's always a pleasure to hear a master get back to basics. It's also nice to see that Yoakam hasn't gone completely Hollywood, despite his new surroundings. But most of all, it's reassuring to find that a Grammy Award-winning movie star can still sound like a broken-down, honky-tonk hillbilly playing for tips.

-- Barry Lank

Heather Nova
Siren
(Work Group)

Two years ago the Bermuda-born, London-dwelling singer-guitarist Heather Nova made her U.S. debut with Oyster, a collection of pop songs offering a hypnotic, slippery sound beneath sometimes-overheated vocals. Although nothing revelatory, Oyster contained enough smart musical moments to be successful. The catchy single "Walk This World" got some airplay and gave people a glimpse of Nova's no-beating-around-the-bush sensual lyrics. In her follow-up, Siren, Nova all but abandons spacious, undulating pop for a heavier, driving sound.

The vocals soar, and the electric guitar really soars, but it's all way too much, with many of the songs sounding incredibly pompous, like early-'80s power ballads by a windblown Pat Benatar. Wailing wah-wah guitars and crashing drums fill the CD; the worst culprits are "Fruit," with its "Ooh, ooh, what a feeling" chorus, and "I'm the Girl," a recitation of feminine palaver with references to Medusa, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Joan of Arc.

Although the calmer songs, such as "Valley of Sound" and "I'm Alive," evoke the wistful sound of Sarah McLachlan, fuzzed-out, theatrical guitar solos are thrown in for no discernible purpose and end up spoiling the mood. A few songs sound almost as if they came from Oyster. For example, "Heart and Shoulder" is reminiscent of Oyster's "Truth and Bone" but doesn't have nearly as much emotional resonance. Siren suffers from bland, predictable lyrics pretty much throughout.

With 14 songs totaling 61 minutes, Siren is too long as well. Nova should have eliminated a couple of songs and most, if not all, of the look-at-me guitar-playing by Nicolaj Juel. Instead of the shine of her previous effort, Nova has turned out something heavy-handed and dull.

-- Theresa Everline

 
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