Short Cuts

This Is Hardcore

Jarvis Cocker's songs are much like Martin Amis' novels: The characters are distasteful, the situations sordid, the sex unsavory, and the humor cruel. It's an ugly picture of mankind stripped to the skivvies, its immorality dangling in the wind. Amis hides his obvious titillation at the scene under a veil of proper English values, but Cocker, who fronts the synth-pop band Pulp, is simply tickled pink by it.

Cocker has been acting like the detached debauchee for quite a while now -- ever since 1979, in fact, when he formed the band (then named Arabacus Pulp) in high school. Pulp's first introduction to America was "Do You Remember the First Time?" an alluringly cheap disco song taken from the album His 'n' Hers (1994). "I don't care what you're doing/No, I don't care if you screw him," Cocker sang in an anguished voice. Different Class, released in late 1995, produced Pulp's first true smash hit in the U.K., the working-class anthem "Common People." With his combination of pith and pathos, decadence and sentiment, the skinny, 35-year-old Cocker has become one of the most popular singers in England.

This Is Hardcore, Pulp's latest effort, is filled with more overblown dramas and shameful episodes, and as usual it's Cocker's wicked humor that makes it all palatable. Only he could sing a love song that contains the lines, "You are like the last drink I never should have drunk/You are the body hidden in the trunk."

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Pulp is basically a four-piece backup band that plays romantic synth-rock while Cocker croons his sad songs. But This Is Hardcore reveals more musical experimentation than previous albums. "Help the Aged" tiptoes along like a public-service jingle while Cocker counsels, "Help the aged/One time they were just like you/ Drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue." A cool xylophone introduces "The Dishes" while Cocker muses sadly, "I'm not Jesus, though I have the same initials/I am the man who stays at home and does the dishes." Cocker also stretches his normally limited vocal range, doing a delightful Bowie imitation on "Party Hard," purring into the microphone like Barry White on "Seductive Barry," and even rasping like Bob Dylan on "TV Movie."

The album's shining moment is the pornographic title track, which slithers along on a sampled horn riff like the theme from an old spy film. "Leave your makeup on/And I'll leave on the light," Cocker snarls to his victim. The song builds to a crescendo of bad taste, with a tawdry string section swooning away as Cocker sings the repugnant refrain, "And that goes in there/And that goes in there...." It's a real piece of nastiness, but that's the basic essence of Pulp. Certainly not everybody will enjoy the taste it leaves in one's mouth.

-- Rafer Guzman

Joey Baron
Down Home

On Down Home, the hotshot drummer Joey Baron has assembled an impressive quartet that features Ron Carter on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Arthur Blythe on saxophone, a dream team that could blow away the current contemporary jazz competition. After all, both the youngbloods and old lions of jazz have been flooding the market with dreck: Kenny G rules the charts, Herbie Hancock covers Sting, and McCoy Tyner collaborates with Burt Bacharach. Jazz is overdue for a shake-up, and Baron's group could have been the men for the job. But instead of cutting the crap, they've simply added to it.

Competent at best and ponderous at worst, Down Home registers as a major disappointment. The disc's eight songs, written exclusively by Baron, are generic, compromised, contemporary jazz grooves with cliched arrangements. Nothing here will get the blood flowing. "Mighty Fine," the album's opener, sets a meek, mild tone, and most of the other tracks are just supper-club fodder. The funky "What" is an exception, with Frisell playing a sinewy lead and Blythe blowing gamely, but it's nothing Maceo Parker hasn't already done better.

It's baffling why Baron didn't present this outfit with more rewarding, provocative material. Because the songs are so weak, the players (especially Blythe) perform at levels far below their capabilities. With the exception of Frisell's signature tone and occasional sidelong riff, the playing is simply nondescript. No one seems inspired enough to step forward and make a memorable gesture. As a result Down Home collapses under its own mediocrity.

-- John Lewis

Richard Davies

On his new release, Richard Davies abandons the delicately orchestrated sound of his earlier work, the mark that won him praise from the British music press and his corduroy-jacketed fans. Telegraph draws on lean singer-songwriter rock from the '60s and '70s (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, among others) rather than the studio latticework of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson that clearly inspired Davies in the past. By adding a dash of psychedelic trickery courtesy of Ronald Jones, the guitarist for the Flaming Lips, Davies seems intent upon re-creating the sound of American pop music circa 1969.  

Davies, the Australian singer-songwriter and former leader of the Moles, recently moved to Woodstock, New York, and recorded Telegraph in a studio there. His trippy lyrics stir up kaleidoscopic visions -- "Imaginary farms/A dome for every barn/ You could have a gravity charity" -- and the music undeniably mimics everyone from the Buffalo Springfield to Carole King to the Lovin' Spoonful. Included in the mix are twanging guitars, no-frills drumming, and chunky Fender Rhodes piano chords à la Billy Preston.

But for all the heat it borrows from '60s music, Telegraph feels tepid. There are plenty of hooks with great, swirling guitars and velvety vocal harmonies (both attributable to Jones). But Davies' voice lacks passion and gives new meaning to the word nasal. He sounds like an uptight guy trying to be laid-back. Folksy songs such as "Main Street Electrical Parade" are painfully earnest but come across as just warped recollections of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Davies' previous projects -- such as Cardinal, a collaboration with another symphony-rocker, Eric Matthews -- have been sophisticated but snooty. Meticulously arranged with strings and brass, they sound like the Go-Betweens and the Chills as interpreted by a chamber orchestra. Now Davies wants to be a hippie. He's swapped his cerebral pretentions for something more down-to-earth, but even here he sounds too precious to be genuine. Though gritty and stripped-down, Telegraph still sounds like it came straight from Davies' armchair.

-- Daniel Lovering

Halo Benders
The Rebels Not In

A sort of indie supergroup from the Pacific Northwest, Halo Benders is a collaboration between Doug Martsch (guitar and vocals) of Built to Spill, Ralf Youtz (drums and guitar) of the Feelings, Wayne Flower (bass and drums) of Violent Green, and Calvin Johnson (guitar and vocals), who founded the bands Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Olympia-based label K Records. Steve Fisk, who has produced countless Northwest bands, chimes in on theremin, harmonium, organ, and synthesizer.

Halo Benders will probably prove to be of more interest to record collectors than the casual listener. Still, there is something to recommend the album to the rest of us: a combination of sweet, Beatles-inspired pop and grit-peppered country tunes. This CD's strengths lie in its members' combined knowledge of music, solid playing, and melodic gifts. On most tracks Johnson's woodsaw vocals carry the melody while Martsch's sugary voice provides the harmony. "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain" is a dreamy, swirly, pop gadget; "YourAsterisk" is country-edged and a little wobbly; "Lonesome Sundown" is a Tex Ritter-like lament.

But then there's the too-clever "Devil City Destiny" (with that always-wacky theremin) and "Surfer's Haze" (a Devoesque dismantling of surf rock). If Halo Benders was an actual band -- instead of just an amusing side project -- its capable members might stand a chance of producing a bona fide, beautiful record.

-- Curt Hopkins

Michael Fracasso
World in a Drop of Water
(Bohemia Beat)

Like any card-carrying singer-songwriter, Michael Fracasso is introspective, literate, and likes to tell tales of romantic damage. "Pride will go before you fall/You never waited after all," he sings on "Changed Your Mind," a pretty and plaintive ballad propelled by acoustic and slide guitars. Just a minute. Pretty and plaintive? Slide guitar? Haven't we heard this before? It's as familiar as the cloying lyrics "Your gift to me/Is the way that you laugh," which come from an acoustic track (what else?) titled "Your Gift to Me."

Yet despite the predictability and overly earnest lyrics, these songs are well-sketched stories, and that slide guitar can really rake over one's soul. Fracasso sings in a floating tenor, and certain songs here sound like Roy Orbison covering one of Marshall Crenshaw's midtempo pop gems. "Hospital" opens the album with a jump-start hook, and the second cut, "Chain-Link Fence," sets words about lost happiness to a sunny melody. In the wryly cynical rocker "Started on the Wrong Foot," Fracasso confesses, with a mixture of resignation and self-mockery, "the other foot's the wrong one too."

There are also moments of instrumental ornateness on World, well rendered by Charlie Sexton, who takes the producer's role and makes a plethora of musical contributions. The title track's complexity is fascinating, thanks mostly to Sexton's performances on drums, bass, cello, pump organ, piano, guitars (electric, twelve-string, and baritone), dumbek, and djembe. Surprisingly, it doesn't sound as if Sexton's craving attention; his contributions just add up to a brief symphony.

World in a Drop of Water is much more sonically textured than Fracasso's two previous efforts, Love & Trust (1993) and When I Lived in the Wild (1995). What really singles out Fracasso from the competition is the way he sometimes leans toward catchy '50s-rock melodies. It's as if he's momentarily forgotten that all singer-songwriters are supposed to live in minor-key purgatory. -- Theresa Everline  

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