Short Cuts

Art of Noise, Buddy Miller, David Mead

Art of Noise
The Seduction of Claude Debussy
(Zang Tuum Tumb/Universal)

British producer Trevor Horn's avant-garde outfit, Art of Noise, was well ahead of the electronica curve in the early '80s, using then-new sampling gimmickry to combine found sounds, electronic atmospherics, and synthetic beats to conjure the 1983 break-dance classic "Beat Box" and the dance anthem "Close (to the Edit)" the following year. The Members of the studio collective worked together sporadically thereafter, and AON was silent for most of the '90s.

But Horn and company have tapped into the sounds of an early 20th-century musical master to give us an ingeniously fitting soundtrack by which to slide into the next 100 years. The 13 cuts of The Seduction of Claude Debussy find AON draping the great French composer's beautiful piano suites with all manner of classical and modern sounds, all intercut with biographical narrative.

"Il Pleure (at the Turn of the Century)" opens the disc with droning synths while British actor John Hurt details Debussy's death on a rainy day in Paris. A sad soprano opera passage then segues into a clacking drum 'n' bass backbeat and soaring orchestral synthesizers, which provide the backdrop for squishy, compressed synth bleeps intermingled with delicate classical guitar. Layered amid the dense palette of sounds, tinkling piano notes rise and fall, emulating a rainstorm. A digitized thunderclap brings the track to a dramatic close.

The disc skips from Debussy's death to his birth with the operatic aria "Born on a Sunday," which is followed by the uplifting jazz-sax riffs, lilting piano, kicking high-hat, and snare propulsion of "Dreaming in Colour."

A few tracks later, AON hip-hops with a guest appearance by master rapper Rakim. "Rapt: In the Evening Air" opens with more Hurt voice-over: "Winter and summer, Debussy used to work surrounded by flowers," he intones. "It would remind you of the line of Baudelaire: 'Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air.'" A dissonant, ascending piano line picks up as Hurt's words trail off, and we can envision Debussy working away. Legato horns augment the melancholy, turn-of-the-century mood, but we're whipped quickly back into the present by deep, electronic bass chords, scratching, and trippy wah-wah guitar.

When "Rapt" recedes again into spare piano and drum beats, Rakim runs with the "sound and perfume" theme. "There's somethin' about the evening air in the summertime/Certain sounds that I seem to hear I wanna rhyme/… I put sounds to hear in the autumn air, sorta rare/Something, yo, to compare to Baudelaire." -- John Ferri


Buddy Miller
Cruel Moon
(HighTone)

Buddy Miller gets around like a Beach Boys single. Not only did one of his early bands feature Shawn Colvin on guitar and vocals, he has also provided lead guitar for Emmylou Harris' Spyboy band, Steve Earle's El Corazón tour, and the current Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt showcase. Furthermore Miller regularly cowrites with his patently brilliant wife, Julie Miller, as well as country superstar Jim Lauderdale, resulting in Miller songs having shown up on albums by Brooks & Dunn and the Dixie Chicks. All of this is in addition to his increasingly demanding duties as a producer and to his own recording career.

For his third album, the achingly gorgeous Cruel Moon, Buddy Miller continues in the direction that he's established previously on Your Love and Other Lies and Poison Love. With references to Steve Earle and Joe Ely and props to George Jones, Miller finds a way to please every taste with his genre-straddling songs of alienated and squandered love. He can rock out with wild abandon ("Love Match," with Earle on vocals) or smolder with a purpose ("Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" and the title cut) or adhere to country's pedal steel traditions ("Sometimes I Cry" and "I'm Not Getting Any Better at Goodbye").

In other hands this range might seem unwieldy and forced, but Miller is a subtle and masterful interpreter of influences. His success comes in knowing which ingredients to use as a base and which to add for flavor, resulting in a sound that never stays in one place very long but doesn't veer so wildly as to be confusing. With studio help from writing partner Lauderdale, bosses Earle and Harris, singer Joy Lynn White, fiddler Tammy Rogers, and naturally, wife Julie, Buddy Miller has come up with yet another splendid example of what Nashville should be doing on a regular basis. -- Brian Baker


David Mead
The Luxury of Time
(RCA)

OK, lookee here, this Mead character isn't about to save the world or make some big huge statement about human rights violations in Tibet. He's just a crooner in the Lloyd Cole tradition: a nice haircut, a nice set of pipes, enough romantic woe to keep the proceedings honest. The Luxury of Time is a pleasing little debut, full of the sort of joyous piffle that finds no offense in the label pop.

"Robert Bradley's Postcard" has the synthy feel of an '80s power ballad, nothing special really, until Mead's supple alto soars into an incandescent falsetto. At which point it becomes clear Mead has a bit more on the ball than his sometimes prosaic arrangements suggest. "Touch of Mascara," the first single, is a strummy gamer that's probably as close as Mead treads to an anthem. Paul Deakin of the Mavericks supplies the crisp drum work here, while the Havana Horns help flesh out an infectious melody. Paul Zonn's languid clarinet intro helps set the dreamy mood for "Make the Most Of," by far Mead's loopiest composition. Elsewhere a somber wash of strings helps propel the Beatlesque ballad "She, Luisa," while Kayton Roberts, a lap steel legend best known for his work with Hank Snow, provides the noirish atmosphere on "While the World Is Sleeping."

A good number of the 13 tracks here sink under the weight of overproduction. But just as often, Mead manages to transcend the derivative tendencies of his blue-eyed soul. These moments make The Luxury of Time an unexpected -- and surprisingly enduring -- pleasure. -- Steve Almond

 
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