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Short Cuts

The Figgs
Couldn't Get High...
(Absolute A Go Go)

The Figgs are rock 'n' roll graybeards by any measure; they've toughed it out on the bar and college circuit for 11 years, been signed and dropped by a major label, and come within spitting distance of fame as Graham Parker's 1997 tour band. But for all their skin-thickening experience, the Figgs have held tight to the adolescent spirit that has driven their music from the start. And the songs on Couldn't Get High..., the band's fourth full-length release, prove they're still high schoolers at heart.

Couldn't Get High... is filled with sullen teen anthems powered by buzzing guitars and tight vocal harmonies. Clearly inspired by '70s punk and '80s college rock, the CD's 12 songs manage to sound more than derivative; the Figgs appropriate Buzzcocks-like riffs and Elvis Costello-like whines and fit them into their own tales of broken hearts and heavy drinking.

Loyal natives of Saratoga Springs, New York, the Figgs formed in 1987 and soon began recording. They've released a wide assortment of recordings on a variety of labels, from Paint Chip to Capitol. Their first, the 1992 single "Happy/My Mad Kitty," was released by Absolute A Go Go, a label to which they've returned. The Figgs first full-length album, 1994's Low-Fi at Society High, was released by Imago. The band then moved on to the majors -- Capitol picked them up in 1996 -- only to be ditched after one album, the disappointing Banda Macho.

Another upstate New York resident and British pub-rock forefather, Graham Parker, took interest in the band in 1997 after hearing them cover one of his songs on a tribute CD. Dazzled by their youthful energy, Parker signed them up as his backup group.

The Figgs recorded Couldn't Get High... between tour dates last year. Though the recording sessions were sporadic, the results are not. Couldn't Get High... is a cohesive, testosterone-filled romp from start to finish.

"Said Enough" begins the CD with drums beating out a battle march. Twang guitar sets in, and the entire band sings a rowdy call-and-response chorus. Couldn't Get High... continues with mysterious-sounding organ trills ("Now!") and ton-of-bricks guitar ("The Bar" and "The Noose Was Tight") à la the MC5. "A Fuse About to Blow" is the highlight of the CD, with triumphant guitar and poisonous lyrics.

The Figgs have been around the block, but they still sing with big-hearted, pimple-faced sincerity and a scrappy attitude. The big time has eluded these guys, but you'd never know it from their music.

-- Daniel Lovering

Joe Ely
Twistin' in the Wind
(MCA Nashville)

Joe Ely arrived on the country-rock scene in the late '70s, when a sharp young Southern artist wouldn't necessarily be pigeonholed into oblivion. On his first five albums, he switched from straightforward country laments ("If You Were a Bluebird") to Jerry Lee Lewis-style barnburners ("Musta Notta Gotta Lotta") to calisthenic tongue twisters ("West Texas Waltz"), all of them played by a fine Tex-Mex band that seamlessly melded accordion, flamenco guitar, and woozy Mexican horns.

Ely wrote half the material and relied on Butch Hancock, the best songwriter in Texas, for the more clever half, but the songs of both possessed the rare virtues of sharp deadpan wit and emotional accessibility that never resorted to triteness. And people who would normally run screaming from the sound of a steel guitar were converted by Ely's raucous live show; the Clash even picked him to open their London Calling tour of England in 1980.

Similar circumstances today seem unthinkable. A talented country-rock fence-straddler like Ely is the first casualty in the battle between Nashville traditionalists and punk-educated types like Jay Farrar and Will Oldham, who fancy themselves purists while treating the tradition as a musical sandbox.

Ely is still recording, but he has fewer illusions about reaching today's mainstream country audience. Instead, his music of the '80s and '90s reflects an unhappy compromise between Austin roots music and Mellencamp-style journeyman rock (and its attendant cliches). Without the pithy counterpoint of the now-departed Hancock, the 12 self-written tracks on Twistin' in the Wind sound lonely and somewhat lethargic. Most unhappily of all, the romantic and befuddled young heroes who once populated his songs have grown into paunchy middle age, grimly concerned with the predictable themes of survival and redemption.

Case in point: The lackluster "Up on the Ridge" and the title track outfit traditional outlaw laments with anthemic '80s power chords, and the results fall somewhere between Merle Haggard and Jon Bon Jovi.

At least Ely still has his boyish good looks and growly delivery, which seemed too wizened when he was young and better suits him now. In its best moments, Twistin' in the Wind offers a few reminders that Ely still knows his way around a loping Sir Douglas Quintet riff ("Nacho Mama") and that his band of Austin session aces (Joel Guzman on accordion, Lloyd Maines on dobro, and Jesse Taylor on lead guitar) can energize a country-swing shuffle like "Sister Soak the Beans."

"I Will Lose My Life," a hilariously slurry reworking of Freddy Fender's pleading ballad style accompanied by Farfisa organ, shows Ely has a little punch left. Revising the most basic genre-song, he sounds like he's having a ball. But during his more reflective moments, he sounds like an artist who isn't quite sure who his audience is.

-- Mark Rosen