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Music Reviews 

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998


NICK LOWE Dig My Mood (Upstart/Rounder)

In nearly three decades of rocking, writing and producing, there’s very little that Nick Lowe hasn’t done. Launching the careers of Elvis Costello and the Pretenders (to name a few) and, a generation later, giving John Hiatt a jumpstart don’t even scratch the surface of his résumé. And then there’s his own impeccable records. Lowe’s second release for Upstart/Rounder finds his music — and presumably his mood — increasingly somber (the title and Lowe’s blacked-out face on the cover should offer a clue).

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For a man who has given the world too many timeless (and cunningly clever) rock-pop gems to mention, on the surface Lowe’s latest may sound surprisingly unambitious. The opener, "Faithless Lover," is about as bleak as it gets. In a slow and sparse setting, Lowe’s warm, rich voice offers the only semblance of consolation. "Lonesome Reverie" has an almost upbeat "Rhythm of the Rain" feel, but is loaded with the kind of double-barreled introspection Lowe dished out on the incomparable "Where’s My Everything."

"What Lack of Love Has Done" stands as one of the disc’s — and Lowe’s — best. Reminiscent of Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s great tunes, it’s a laid-back white soul track, gently coaxed with an understated horn section that would have done Otis Redding or Joe Tex proud. With Steve Donnelly providing the faux Luther Perkins guitar licks, "Man That I’ve Become" is all Johnny Cash, complete with the church choir background vocals and, perhaps, a dour self-commentary. Elsewhere, there’s the hopeful "You Inspire Me" and "Freezing," a pair of cabaret ballads, and "Time I Took a Holiday," which delves into the Scott Walker variety of ambitious pop.

In other words, be prepared, because listening to Dig My Mood is no walk in the park. But once you accept the invitation to Lowe’s odd (check out his pulsing, Staples-like reworking of "Lead Me Not Into Temptation") and moody world, there’s an incredible wealth of comfort and beauty to be found. (Michael Lipton)

BASSHOLES Long Way Blues 1996–1998 (Matador)

By day, Don Howland is a pissed-off inner-city teacher working in the Columbus, Ohio, system; he told me a couple of years back that his students were killing each other off with alarming frequency. By night, he is the lead singer, guitarist and guiding intelligence of the way-gone roots-punk duo the Bassholes. The frustration and lunacy of Howland’s day gig informs every note of his band’s music.

Long Way Blues, on which Howland is backed by punchout drummer Bim Thomas, is the fourth Bassholes album since 1993; before that, Howland was a member of the Gibson Bros., a similarly aberrant roots combo in which he was partnered with guitarist "Monsieur" Jeffrey Evans (and, briefly, with Jon Spencer of Pussy Galore/Blues Explosion infamy). The Gibsons thrashed out crude yet spiffy blues/rockabilly terrorism; the ’Holes are a more distinctive and challenging product of Howland’s blues- and punk-bound musical imagination, and come fueled with his own high-octane brand of dazed Midwestern angst.

After an opening instro blat of distorted DJ noise and heavy-breathing samples evidently drawn from an old porno flick, the ’Holes unload big-time in a number typically abrim with violent bemusement. "Did I really kill my wife," Howland asks, "or was it just a dream?" Long Way Blues then veers its addled way through various scenarios of public drunkenness ("Knocked Out on My Lawn"), spousal decapitation ("Cabooseman Blues") and murderous retribution (the freakazoidal "Angel of Death"). The album ends with the thrillingly ugly one-two punch "Turpentine"; a lyrically less toxic, Stooge-ified rendering of the Sonics’ "Strychnine"; and, after a few minutes of dead air, an untitled Gun Club–style rave-up that braises the skin off your eardrums. The music is usually the sort of thing you’d imagine a crack addict with a large collection of Blind Lemon Jefferson 78s might make.

Don Howland is one badly bent gent, and Long Way Blues finds him well on the way to pinning the dementia meter with his singularly contorted and obsessive Americana moderne. (Chris Morris)

THOMAS CHAPIN TRIO Sky Piece (Knitting Factory Records)

It says something about jazz’s profile that a talent as large as Thomas Chapin’s has remained nearly invisible beyond a 500-mile radius of New York. And it’s not much comfort that Sky Piece, released a couple of months ago around the time of Chapin’s untimely death following a long illness, is being called his best work.

This is one of those rare trios that stayed together long enough to attain perfect equilibrium. From beginning to end, nothing is tossed off — every note sounds as if its author cast the I Ching before selecting it, yet the music swings with spontaneous joy. Chapin is masterful on a variety of saxes and flutes: the bass flute weighted against bassist Mario Pavone’s half-step back-and-forth on "Sky Piece"; the tour de force of alto-sax flutters and gentle bends on the prodding, time-signature-switching "Bypass"; the assertive flute on the hard-charging "Don’t Mind If I Do." Pavone’s sound is deeply polished dark oak, whether kicking strong on "Changes 2 Tyres" or bowing rivery swaths on the wide-eyed tone poem "Essaouira." Light-handed drummer Michael Sarin does precisely what is required, most impressively when he’s all but inaudible: Listen for the tick-ticking behind Chapin’s lonely Arabic flute on "Just Now."

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