Debt & Departure
At their most brilliant, the Grifters were the best band to come from Memphis since Big Star. Now that the group is drifting in limbo, head Grifter David Shouse has more time to spend with his erstwhile side project, Those Bastard Souls. But where the Grifters rambled and wavered like a drunk too inebriated to speak coherently, Debt & Departure has a grubby swagger, grudgingly telling small tales. The Souls' second record is the first as a true group, and what a group it is; violinist Joan Wasser (Dambuilders), drummer Kevin March (Shudder to Think, Dambuilders, Rentals), bassist Matt Fields (Red Red Meat), and guitarist Michael Tighe (Jeff Buckley's band).
Shouse's songs measure up to the talented musicians performing them; they're solid and roomy, like an old American car. The straightforward rock and Shouse's Everyman voice are misleadingly smooth as the singer explores both failed and burgeoning relationships with humility and control. "The Wake of Your Flood" focuses on two people asking each other for one more chance in a relationship when both of them know better. With clinking piano, a simple organ riff, and Wasser's bowed strings adding mournful color, Shouse admits, "I'm stubborn as the last boy you had," while giving in against his better judgment. It's a desolate tune, with minor-key acoustic guitar and brushed drums keeping the emotions in check. It's a song that'll probably end up on a compilation album for exlovers.
But Debt & Departure is not all about sadness. The album opens with the catchy restraint of "The Last Thing I Ever Wanted Was to Show Up and Blow Your Mind." March keeps the tempo just a notch too slow, giving the kiss-off song tension and weight. The punchy and crunchy "Train From Terminal Boredom" splits the instruments (guitar on the right, vocals on the left) and throws in a quick sax squawk for that perfect Sticky Fingers feel.
Similarly, on "Curious State" slide guitars battle with Wasser's violin to see which can skronk the loudest. If Shouse can keep this lineup together, Those Bastard Souls may yet challenge the Grifters' legacy. -- David Simutis
Sophie B. Hawkins
You have to admire the vision and moxie of Sophie B. Hawkins. She struck pop gold in 1992 with her debut album, Tongues and Tails, and its ubiquitous Top 10 hit "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," and again in 1994 with Whaler and its big single, "As I Lay Me Down." She then shut down the hit factory until she could get the songs and sounds just right for the next album. That process wound up taking almost five years, as Hawkins composed all of the songs and played most of the instruments on her latest pop gem, Timbre.
Hawkins' slightly dusky voice is a sensual and beautiful instrument that stands tall in the mix on the new album. Her work at the beginning of her career as a background singer and percussionist for Bryan Ferry comes to the forefront on Timbre, especially on the propulsive and atmospheric "The Darkest Childe" and the poignant "Bare the Weight of Me." Hawkins does a passable Jewel impression on "Your Tongue Like the Sun in My Mouth," which starts off very sensitive-singer-songwriterish, then turns into something of a sonic squall in the last minute or so. Leonard Cohen is an obvious influence in the autobiographical "Help Me Breathe," while "The One You Have Not Seen" offers a tinge of Brian Eno.
Nothing leaps out of Timbre like the hits pulled from Hawkins' first two albums, but the beauty of this piece of work is that, unlike its predecessors, it reveals itself slowly and deliberately. Eventually, Timbre may wind up being as successful as Tongues and Tails and Whaler. On the other hand, Hawkins may have worked too meticulously for too long. The record buyers who push singles into the Top 10 have notoriously short memories, and five years between releases may prove to be a few years too many, saleswise.
It doesn't help that a number of like-minded female artists (Jewel, Poe, Tori Amos) have released similarly toned albums since Hawkins' last longplayer -- which can either spur sales or depress them, depending on just how saturated the market is. Whatever happens to Timbre, it's a fascinating departure from Hawkins' previous outings. And with a little luck in the audience department, she should be able to match the accomplishments of her first two albums. -- Brian Baker