Grading on a curve

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The Waltz King, Cafe Noir (Carpe Diem). There is no more lovely sound than Gale Hess' violin or clarinet and Norbert Gerl's viola in tandem with Jason Bucklin's guitar and Lyles West's stand-up bass. It evokes something lost, desperate, sad, foreign, intangible--like a dream half-remembered two days after the fact. Caf Noir's third album is their finest yet, a gorgeous and ethereal amalgam of their classical and jazz tendencies (one need only hear their interpretation of Stravinsky's "Andante and Galop"). Randy Erwin, the once and future yodel king, no longer sounds out of place in the mix, his voice now an instrument as suitable to the arrangements as the accordion or the mandolin. Nowhere is that more evident than on "In Love Alone," on which Erwin sings about the "worst kind of lonely" like a man who knows about such things.

The Funland Band, Funland (Steve Records). After almost four years, Funland's full-length album hit stores and landed three separate songs on the radio--"Bleed Like Anyone," "Die Like a Satellite," and "Angry Girl." And they're not even the best songs on the record. This band's finest moments are the subtle and dramatic ones that take the listener to a dozen different places in the span of a few minutes--a song like "Sparkloser," which begins with a droning whisper then explodes into a surprising scream; a song like "Down Stage," in which a musician pits the internal songwriter against the external performer; or "Parallel Lines," on which Peter Schmidt wonders, "If there's a moment of truth, then what's it for?" Funland may well sound like a Rock Band--the new addition to the live set, Cheap Trick's "Surrender," is more than appropriate--but they keep the faith and fan the flame like no other rock band in town.

The Western Life, Cowboys and Indians (Independent). Bob Wills would be proud, and so would Louis Jordan: These guys don't just get a kick out of reviving the Western swing and jump-blues sound; they embody the tradition, from the little big-band arrangements of new songs that sound old but always fresh to the hats and ties they wear on stage. They're no novelty, their sound doesn't even approach gimmick, and their marksman musicianship never gets in the way of the genuine joy they get when Swanson's singing about how he's "got an inch on old Big Tex."

Trio/Quartet, Earl Harvin (Leaning House). Harvin plays like a man possessed--by Thelonious Monk, by Max Roach, by the spirits of jazz past who haunt this record from start to finish. A drummer who fronts his bands, rock or jazz, from behind the kit, Harvin explores the place where jazz stops being bop and becomes something else--where melodies melt into rhythms melt into one wrenching beast that consumes the player and overwhelms the listener. And Harvin's band--pianist Dave Palmer, bassist Fred Hamilton, and sax player Shelley Carroll--is the best this side of Impulse Records circa 1962.

Allumettes, Brave Combo featuring Lauren Agnelli (Blues Interactions, Japan). This hard-to-find disc showcases the Brave Combo seldom heard on their albums (including this year's terrific Polkas for a Gloomy World) or on stage--the moody, ambient, jazz band hiding behind the rock and world-beat facade. Ex-Washington Square Lauren Agnelli doesn't steal the show, she just brings out the grown men inside the boys who are still trying to figure out how to merge "The Hustle" with "Walk on the Wild Side" for their next album. God bless 'em.

Swings the Blues, Big Al Dupree (Dallas Blues Society). Fed the big-band sound since he was a young boy growing up in the State-Thomas area, Dupree's brand of blues is closer to Louis Jordan's than T-Bone Walker's; it's brasher, bigger, bolder, more for gettin' down than feeling down. There's nothing nostalgic about this record, which sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday or 50 years ago.

White Trash Receptacle, cottonmouth, texas (One Ton Records). Jeff Liles makes the life story of one simple man more interesting than it ever should have been. Somehow, he manages to make stories about how he got on and off drugs, how he spends his last four bucks, and how he gets his girlfriends to fuck him intriguing. The samples might be one reason why this is so good. Either that, or my life's incredibly dull.

Wreck Your Life, Old 97's (Bloodshot Records). They're calling these boys country in Chicago, but it takes more than the occasional Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard cover to warrant such a label. And besides, it misses the point: Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond are folkies at heart who write pop songs before they add the twang. Nothing "insurgent" about it, despite the press bio, only old-fashioned she-done-me-wrong songs sung by a guy who makes them believeable enough even though they're the stuff of fiction.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky