Short Cuts

Lhasa
La Llorona
(Atlantic)

Like seasoned songsters more than twice her age, Lhasa evokes an idyllic past that's tucked away in the folds of our collective musical consciousness. Borrowing from the vocal styles of jazz singers, cabaret divas, and traditional balladeers, the 25-year-old, Mexican-American singer brings to mind the likes of Billie Holiday and Jacques Brel with a twist of Tom Waits thrown in for contemporary color. As a result her debut disc, La Llorona, exudes a seasoned and confident maturity.

Born in upstate New York and raised in the United States and Mexico, Lhasa embraces both cultures and taps into a stream of musicality that transcends potential barriers such as language and form. Vocally she blurs borders and erases all expectations with a voice that refuses to settle into a single genre, time period, or mood. When she sings (usually in Spanish), the notes quiver between past and present, joy and melancholy, and life and death -- all at the same time. "I long for life and move towards death," she sings in "Floricanto," and the cruel and restless irony of such a statement is at the heart of much of her material.

Instrumentally, producer-guitarist Yves Desrosiers enhances the vocals with warm ambiance and open spaces. Desrosiers picks sparse guitar lines and sprinkles accordion, bass, and rudimentary percussion into the mix, always with admirable restraint. The vibe of a shambling ensemble prevails, and the group shifts from the propulsively klezmerish "Los Peces" (The Fish) to the haunting slow burn of "Por Eso Me Quedo" (That's Why I'm Staying) with grace and charm. The songs pulse with dramatic tension and hum with an emotional resonance that lingers after the music ends. La Llorona is an enchanting debut.

-- John Lewis

Soul Coughing
El Oso
(Slash/Warner Bros.)

Being an enigma is a mixed blessing. Soul Coughing is one of the few truly innovative bands with a style that borrows from hip-hop, funk, jazz, and rock as well as the jungle-techno category. But finding a bin for the band's CDs at Sam Goody and getting its songs on the radio have not been easy.

In dealing with this Scylla-or-Charybdis quandary (after all, why form a band no one seems to listen to?), the four-man outfit has remained true to its original formula with its third album, El Oso. But vocalist M. Doughty and his troupe of avant-rock poets have also followed the recent leads of U2, Madonna, and even Mariah Carey: They've honed in on the dance-inspired realm of techno beats and heavy bass lines. And it may be working. "Circles," the first single from El Oso, has recently risen on Billboard's modern rock chart, and the buzz is that Oso is the band's breakout album.

Because not much has changed over the last six years in Soul Coughing's personnel (Doughty; Mark de Gli Antoni, keyboards and samples; Sebastian Steinberg, upright bass; Yuval Gabay, percussion; and Tchad Blake producing), it stands to reason that listeners have finally caught on. Overall, El Oso has a tighter, cleaner sound than Soul Coughing's previous efforts, but none of the quartet's edges have been dulled. From the opening track, "Rolling," which is worthy of the momentum the title implies, to the finale, "The Incumbent," El Oso steams along at a manageably frenetic pace.

However unusual the music may sound, Doughty et al. continue to cover the same topics. They've never strayed from revealing personal information, which on this album includes a painful breakup ("Circles") and Catholic-school flashbacks ("St. Louise Is Listening"). They discuss love and loss in both a cathartic tone ("Maybe I'll Come Down") and with ample angst ("Pensacola"). The strange relationship between drugs and geography is also still fair game. (Think "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago," from the band's 1994 debut, Ruby Vroom.) "Houston," in fact, throws another element into the mix, uniting heroin addiction with Roller Derby. And on "The Incumbent" Doughty rants about another city -- "New York, New York/I won't go back/Indelible reminder of the steel I lack/I gave you seven years/What did you give me back?/A jaw-grind disposition to a panic attack."

The rest of the lyrics on El Oso are just as evocative. In "I Miss the Girl" Doughty is "Going down to Baltimore/Going in an off-white Honda," and he sings "I don't mind worry following me like a dinosaur" in "So Far I Have Not Found the Science."

A dictionary might be useful to help decipher some inscrutable lyrics -- "aphasia" and "maquereau" pop up in one track -- but lacking one won't subtract from of the fun. Regardless, Soul Coughing will forever remain uncategorizable, able to be appreciated both as dance-worthy background music and as intricate, lyrical prose.

-- Liesa Goins

 
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