COMPACTED DISCSIT'S THAT TIME OF THE MONTH AGAIN

Combustible Edison
I, Swinger
(Sub Pop)

It had to happen. The one remaining corner in the well-trodden room of pop music has finally been discovered. It was lurking over there behind cool jazz, gathering dust next to Muzak, and it took Boston's Combustible Edison to get wise and clean up the joint. What Com Ed unearthed is known by many names: easy listening, lounge exotica, cocktail music.

It's mood music, to be sure--as long as your mood is swinging.
But don't confuse this Lazy Susan offering of diabolically suave stylings with those old 101 Strings or Longines Symphonette Society albums your great-uncle has. This stuff was made to go with a cool highball and a hot low-cut dress, trade winds and tiki torches. Shaken, not stirred, thank you.

You'll hear broad strokes of Hawaiian lounge king Martin Denny (who made concept albums like Hypnotica, Exotica and Afro-desia throughout the Fifties and Sixties) all over I, Swinger, yet this is no hokey rip-off. The quintet creates its own delicious mood that is not nostalgic, cute or coy.

Thrill to the Polynesian angst that is "Breakfast at Denny's," the breezy sensuality of "Intermission," or the native succulence of "Guadaloupe," featuring the Polly Bergenesque vocals of Miss Lily Banquette.

I, Swinger is, quite simply, a titillating gem culled from a glorious, ancient time when cocktails induced a mood instead of altering it, and cigarettes were a tool of seduction instead of a stigma. You need this album like a martini needs an olive.--Peter Gilstrap

Bunny Wailer
Crucial! Roots Classics
(Shanachie)

If the only reggae you've heard in the last few years has been tropical-fruit-juice jingles, the theme from Cops and UB40 sweating to the oldies, it's time to hear this potent music again in its original political context.

And what better way than via this essential collection of Bunny Wailer singles from 1979 to 1982? Wailer experimented with different instrumentation far more than his contemporaries did, making these sides sound fresh even today. Check out the raga-meets-reggae arrangement on "Old Dragon," a grudge match between Lucifer and Jah. Kind of a reggae variation on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Unlike most political music, reggae is spiritually centered, so even songs about oppression and streets littered with innocent bodies hold out some hope for the future. Crucial? Jah, mon!--Serene Dominic Cheap Trick

Woke Up With a Monster
(Warner Bros.)

Elvis Costello
Brutal Youth
(Warner Bros.)

Pop font of hooks and wisdom Elvis Costello reviewed alongside--nay, along with--power-gum institution Cheap Trick? Before respective fans begin shrieking sacrilege, consider these surprising commonalities: 1. Both arrived on the music scene in 1977.

2. Both pay homage to/rip off Sixties Pop Icons like the Beatles and Stones.
3. Both began careers with strong, impressive albums. Then Costello got further out, thought he was Bob Dylan, resulting in a series of half-assed releases. Trick got further in, thought it was Journey, resulting in a series of half-assed releases.

4. Both were written off by critics at one point, yet have remained big live draws with devoted followers.

5. Costello wrote songs with McCartney, Trick did sessions with Lennon for his last album, Double Fantasy.

6. Cheap Trick influenced countless power-pop bands, such as the Replacements. Costello influenced countless wordy, clever songwriters, such as Paul Westerberg.

7. Both have just released alleged "return to form" albums.
8. The record label of each artist has the exact same amount of letters in its name.

So, on to the big question--are Youth and Monster any good? Are these vibrant, new works from old masters, or pathetic retreads?

Brutal Youth happily reveals that Costello is still capable of making a focused, kinetic album. The 15 songs are buoyed by tight playing and restrained arrangements (thanks to the return of the godlike Attractions), and represent his best work since 1983's Punch the Clock. Elvis is a man of many moods; in the past, that has produced a lot of muddled, half-erect work. Not so here. "Thirteen Steps Lead Down" has a chorus more contagious than swine flu, but the same could be said for "London's Brilliant Parade," "My Science Fiction Twin" and nearly all the tracks.

If you're in search of the Elvis of old (the one you heard on everything from My Aim Is True through Punch the Clock), look no further. This is as close as you'd want the man to get without rewriting his past catalogue. But after dipping into country, jazz, Broadway and classical, what will Costello do next? Maybe he'll start writing songs like Cheap Trick.

While Costello has felt compelled to borrow not just from groups but from entire genres, Cheap Trick has pretty much kept its pinching to the Beatles with a dash of Eric Carmen. But rarely has a band borrowed so blatantly and stayed so original, and Woke Up With a Monster is supreme testament to that.

Guitarist Rick Nielsen plays all those candy-metal licks you loved in "Surrender," and has his songwriting formula of hook-hook-solo-hook fully intact, Robin Zander's voice is still the one you want to hear screaming out of your car stereo, and Bun E. Carlos plays as heavy as his gut is wide.

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