Short Cuts

Kevin Welch, Counting Crows, Bryan Ferry

Kevin Welch
Beneath My Wheels
(Dead Reckoning)

Everything great about Kevin Welch is present on "Everybody's Gotta Walk," the first cut from Beneath My Wheels, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter's masterful fourth album. His labelmate Mike Henderson lays down a blues-drenched slide-guitar riff, then Welch's piercing Okie-twang tenor cuts through the groove, preaching of the inevitable need for salvation. From there the song explodes, with an ominous gospel chorus from the Fairfield Four melding into a sound that is as much R&B as it is country -- the kind of sound that baffles the Music City's mainstream mavens as it signifies just how deeply Welch has absorbed the myriad traditions of American roots music and how he's found his own voice within them.

Throughout Beneath My Wheels, Welch redefines the possibilities of altcountry. Like Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Mike Henderson, Dave Alvin, and Jim Lauderdale, Welch draws from just about everything: doom-laden folk, beer-soaked honky-tonk, guitar-crazed rock 'n' roll, and roadhouse blues. He also has an eye for the details of despair, desperation, and turmoil. "We had too much misery/Too much fun," he observes in "While I Was Loving You," a sad remembrance of a shattered relationship. "Anna Lise Please" is an aching plea for understanding and compassion from a drunk who is tumbling into the abyss of his own misery and torment. On "Hill Country Girl," he toasts his own dangerous love for a woman he knows is no good for him, sealing his romantic fate with the admission that he's as "crazy" as she is, while "Fold Your Wings" celebrates a love that "time can't kill," yet his mournful vocal suggests the end is definitely near.

Bleak as it often is, Beneath My Wheels is more than a catalog of Welch's pain. Both "Everybody's Gotta Walk" and the boogie-shuffling "Faith Comes Later" are testimonials of religious conviction that are neither pious nor preachy; rather they are shot through with the compassion you don't hear from "no television preacher" or "no redneck on the radio," as he sings on the latter tune. "Bastard Nation," meanwhile, relays the tale of a woman for whom even gospel faith can't fill an empty, drifting soul. Still, it's when he examines his own soul that Welch's poetic artistry establishes him among the finest songwriters toiling along the outskirts of the Nashville establishment. The title track is a bleak look back at a squandered youth and a harrowing confession of adulthood jitters. "Shores of Stone" finds Welch hungry, thirsty, and lonely, stranded in his own isolation: "This is just a message in a bottle/A sad commence/ There are just some things I want to tell you/Nowadays this is the only way." The only way, perhaps, but also the perfect way. -- John Floyd


Counting Crows
This Desert Life
(Geffen Records)

Sophomore slumps are an occupational hazard in rock 'n' roll, but Counting Crows' horrendous 1996 album, Recovering the Satellites, set a lame new standard. The album found the band, seemingly drunk on its own self-importance, spooning up laughably introspective songs that sank beneath the weight of their own artiness. The disc was all the more disappointing considering the band's 1993 debut disc. One of the most impressive pop recordings of the '90s, August and Everything After showcased a rootsy rock band fronted by a shamelessly touchy-feely singer named Adam Duritz. Apparently Duritz let the band's multiplatinum success go to his dreadlocked head. His indulgent ponderings torpedoed the band's follow-up disc and made the Crows sound like whimpering swallows.

To be honest I was expecting to preside over Counting Crows' creative funeral in this review, but my diabolical plan has been foiled. The band's third album, This Desert Life, is as endearingly mopey as their debut, only this time there's a welcome injection of adrenaline and melodic cheeriness. In fact the album's first single, "Hanginaround," bears a striking melodic resemblance to LEN's smiley summertime hit, "Steal My Sunshine." As if that weren't surprising enough, "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" finds the band performing ragged, Dylanesque pop, while "Four Days" recalls R.E.M.'s jangly heyday. Who'da thunk it? -- an upbeat Counting Crows record!

But on closer inspection, these toe-tapping melodies are merely a cover for Duritz's typically woebegone sentiments. "I can bleed as well as anyone," he sings on "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," casting himself as a noble survivor of the love wars. Elsewhere his overly sincere lyricism comes at the expense of comprehensibility. To wit: "I wish I was a girl/So that you could believe me/And I could shake this static every time I try to sleep." Say what?

Fortunately This Desert Life is so musically appealing, it's easy to overlook Duritz's grandstanding. The band has discovered orchestration, with tracks like "Colorblind" and "All My Friends" featuring lush string arrangements that give the record a rococo charm. The only quibble here is the inclusion of an annoying "hidden track" that contributes little to the album's overall vibe. Note to the record industry: Please put a stop to this irritating gimmick. Music lovers have better things to do than wait several minutes for a lame hidden track passing itself off as a generous bonus. You're not fooling anyone.

That complaint aside, This Desert Life proves that the Counting Crows are determined to extend their 15 minutes of fame. Their creative funeral has been postponed due to unexpected sunniness. -- Bruce Britt


Bryan Ferry
As Time Goes By
(Virgin)

Even when Bryan Ferry was the toast of the avant-garde, art-rock glam wave with Roxy Music's first incarnation, decked out in '50s gold lamé and warbling "Virginia Plain" or "In Every Dream Home, a Heartache," it was clear that he was a crooner at heart. He may have been trying to sell the greaser look, but his sensibilities were entrenched well before the greaser era. With Brian Eno's departure, Ferry almost immediately adopted the white dinner jacket look, trading his Elvis-meets-Liberace wardrobe for a little more style and grace.

These Foolish Things, Ferry's first solo attempt, was an all-covers affair, his way of finding his place among his personal pantheon of influential singers and songwriters. The 1973 album was a pastiche of eras and genres, from Bob Dylan to Lesley Gore to the Beatles, but the facility with which Ferry sang the lush title track hinted strongly that the standards could be a primary direction.

Twenty-six years later Ferry finally has his classic covers album, the evocative and moody As Time Goes By. Ferry's artful spin on these acknowledged classics utilizes his fabulously expressive trill in the service of songs that predate his birth by at least a decade. With the drama and passion that he brought to Roxy and his subsequent solo pop-dance forays, Ferry absorbs the timelessness of these 60- and 70-year-old pieces, giving them new life without unnecessarily contemporizing them.

Thematically, As Time Goes By reflects on love and time. Roxy fans will take particular note of "I'm in the Mood For Love," as Ferry reteams with former Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera for a jazzy Brazilian spin on the 1935 chestnut. Ferry's arrangements fall somewhere between straight readings and modern interpretations, depending on how playful he feels with each piece. The charm and ultimate success of As Time Goes By lie in the fact that Bryan Ferry never treats the standards as delicate museum pieces but as living, breathing musical entities. -- Brian Baker

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