Short Cuts

Roy Montgomery
And Now the Rain Sounds Like Life Is Falling Down Through It
(Drunken Fish)

Roy Montgomery is a different kind of guitar hero, a minimalist who chooses to recline within the the forest rather than diddle among the trees. A pivotal figure in the New Zealand underground for the better part of the last 15 years, Montgomery debuted in 1981 with the Pin Group, a bafflingly overlooked punk trio, then resurfaced later that decade as a member of Dadamah, which knocked out a brilliant album and a few singles that redefined the parameters of experimental improv rock. Similarly his solo work from the '90s -- scattered across a few albums and myriad singles, EPs, and compilations -- has redefined what one inspired man can do with a guitar and a four-track tape recorder.

Montgomery doesn't rock, nor does he dazzle with speed, flash, or finesse. He creates mood pieces, soundtracks in search of films, in which three-note riffs establish melodic structures and are accompanied by tracks of overdubbed guitar, some of them harshly distorted, others coated in sheets of reverb. His voice, which he adds to the music on occasion, is dark, somber, a melancholic baritone that inevitably draws comparisons to Ian Curtis, the late vocalist of Joy Division.

The wonderfully titled And Now the Rain Sounds Like Life Is Falling Down Through It, Montgomery's third LP, might be his best work to date -- an hour-long soundscape that's perfect for dreary, rainy days and late nights on the couch with a headful of cannabis. He's singing more (on four songs, a first for a solo Montgomery album) and playing more piano. The artful keyboard flourishes on "The Small Sleeper (For Jack)" and "In Our Own Time" underpin the drama of Montgomery's contemplative strumming and aching vocals.

He's best on guitar, though, especially on "Algeria?" -- during which he pulls sounds from the instrument that may as well be coming from violinist-composer Tony Conrad -- and on "Ill at Home," the most terrifying piece yet in this brilliant artist's ever-expanding catalog. (Drunken Fish, P.O. Box 460640, San Francisco, CA 94146)

-- John Floyd

Liz Phair
Whitechocolatespaceegg
(Matador)

Just a year after her earth-shattering debut, Exile in Guyville, was released (in 1993), Liz Phair came out with her second, equally mesmerizing album, Whip-Smart. Since then fans and critics have waited, often impatiently, for another round of blistering Phair fare. Diverse rather than driving, Whitechocolatespaceegg is full of organs and airiness, pop and rock. It features Phair beyond her dark twenties, being more than just the bad girl, and it works. Spaceegg's affecting melodies and no-bullshit lyrics help cement Phair in place as one the weightiest songwriters of the '90s.

Spaceegg swaggers from one well-crafted song to the next as Phair tackles the subjects of friends, lovers, and life with her unique blend of cynicism and candor. She is delicate while sarcastic on "Perfect World," singing, "I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious/I would have it all if I'd only had this much." On "Johnny Feelgood," a dirty song that would fit nicely on Exile, she sings, "I hate him all the time/But I still get up/When he knocks me down/And he orders me around." On a lighter note, in "Shitloads of Money" Phair exclaims: "It's nice to be liked/But it's better by far to get paid." It could be an answer to critics who slammed her second album, which sold half a million copies. Another standout track on Spaceegg is "Go On Ahead," a sparse, melodic reading of a relationship gone sour.

Musically Phair makes no attempt to hide her songwriting influences. Spaceegg continues what Exile started -- her answer to the Rolling Stones -- and adds to it. "Ride" is an anthem of sorts; "Girls Room" is a fun, vocal-driven romp, like others on Phair's previous discs. Phair even mimics the Stones on "Johnny Feelgood," as she whispers, "I like it, I like it." And she quotes the Beatles on "Fantasize" ("You've got to hide your love away"), a short acoustic song performed with Peter Buck, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills of R.E.M.

Whitechocolatespaceegg proves once again that Phair doesn't give in to anyone. "You can take me home, but I will never be your girl," she sings on the provocative "Headache." "I won't let your mystery unfurl." That's true of this album as well. The more one listens, the more it reveals; but it will always leave you with a desire for more.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Adam Cohen
Adam Cohen
(Columbia)

It's reassuring that, among the new generation of songwriters, someone is writing lines like these: "He doesn't know/Why it's weird/When he whispers/In your ear/ I really wanna know your sister/I really kinda like your sister/I really wanna know your sister/She's so much like you." At a time when any idiot can write something perverse, it takes real skill to handle the complex subject of homosexuality with such intelligence. Adam Cohen does just that (in collaboration with Dillon O'Brian) with "Sister," setting the lyrics to music vaguely reminiscent of Prince. In fact, Cohen's self-titled debut is rife with substance, matching a talent for emotional impact with music of moodiness and brooding.

Much has been made of the fact that Cohen's father is the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, and that's unfortunate. They're very different kinds of artists. For starters, Leonard Cohen composes folk songs, Adam Cohen soul and rock music. To be more specific, Adam Cohen has a lot of U2 in him, some Marvin Gaye and Randy Newman, and no Joan Baez whatsoever. More important, his music has a passion that isn't normally associated with celebrity progeny. And the intensity and intelligence of his songwriting is sorely needed in any generation.

"Tell Me Everything" starts the album off on a dark note and a slow funk rhythm -- a cross between Bono and Miles Davis. "Tell me man, are you sleeping with her/Because I am/I see her strength in your eyes, yeah there she is." The dark mood continues in the songs that follow, as even the titles attest: "Cry Ophelia," "Don't Mean Anything," "This Pain." In "Quarterback" the anger is less subtle. "Go shove you on him and score/Stay where the grass is trim and clean and green whore/... Why can't your cheers be for me/Instead of that quarterback/My little homecoming queen/ Is skinning her knees for the king."

Of course Cohen's career is just beginning, and his musical influences are still fairly obvious. "Sister" isn't the only song that harkens back to Prince. But what he's done with the music is nonetheless strong and personal. As for the lyrics, they're the work of a poet. In this, at least, he is like his father.

-- Barry Lank

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