Recordings

Bruce Cockburn
The Charity of Night
(Rykodisc)

L. Ron Hubbard should be as cult an artist as Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn's only "hit" singles are diametric opposites--1979's "Wondering Where the Lions Are" was a jaunty bit of religious poetry, while 1984's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" threatened to blow up some sons of bitches. Another reason to like Cockburn: He's the only guy who has covered "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (from Monty Python's Life of Brian) on a live album.

Though he's never registered more than a blip on America's pop-culture radar, Cockburn (pronounce it genteellike, COE-burn) has been at it for a quarter century. His '70s albums were sweet, sometimes saccharine, folky efforts tinged with jazz and drenched in a Christianity that became increasingly liberal-minded. But he hit his stride in the early '80s, with a few brief, brilliant moments--Humans, Inner City Front and The Trouble With Normal. These albums placed personal concerns within a broader political context and fretted, honestly and with torment, over the incongruity between the loving God Cockburn believed in and the increasingly bleak global landscape. And yet this period was sprinkled with Cockburn's most playful shoulda-been hits--"Tokyo," "Wanna Go Walking," "The Trouble With Normal," "Peggy's Kitchen Wall."

Later albums became more aggressively political, to the point of outright pedantry. Cockburn traveled the world's trouble spots and reported back what he had seen, but with decreasing musical invention. Indisputably, Cockburn is a committed humanitarian, but the effect on his music has been underwhelming--he's closer to a Nobel Prize than a Grammy. Through it all, Cockburn has bopped from label to label. With The Charity of Night, his new home Rykodisc faces the difficult task of getting American toes tapping to accounts of human-rights violations in East Timor.

The new disc, Cockburn's 23rd, is a predominantly acoustic effort--a good move since his acoustic material has tended to be more distinctive than his electric. It opens with "Night Train," conjuring up exotic and menacing imagery, something Cockburn can do in his sleep. It's pushed along, however, by a smooth, agreeably less-than-urgent shuffle, which returns a few tracks later in "The Coming Rains." These are pleasant enough tunes, but they find Cockburn spouting such mouthfuls as: "Hot breeze ran its fingers through the long grass of a thatched-roof eave/Stepping in the only chair they had while they cooked casava and a luckless hen/They asked for one, well, three lanterns and two hundred liters of fuel and I said, Who me?" Um--can you run that luckless hen bit past us again?

No wonder Cockburn's started using spoken-word monologues backed by instrumentation--they convey the more sophisticated ideas he's after. But musically, they're a bit of a cheat. No fewer than four tracks here include bits or large chunks of unsung narrative. "I woke up this morning thinking about Turkish drummers, which didn't take long since I don't know much about Turkish drummers," he begins, promisingly enough, seemingly poking fun at some of his previously pretentious spoken-sung tracks. But soon he's off again, discussing Afghan secret police, refinery fires, military police pistols and eco-tragedies.

"Pacing the Cage" or "Night Train" seem the best choices for the single from this package, but Rykodisc gave that honor to another rambling tune, "The Mines of Mozambique." In fact, the label has pledged five dollars to charity every time the song is played on the radio--call it socially aware payola. Much of Cockburn's recent work has been championed by his enduring admirers as having a ripped-from-today's-headlines quality. But, perhaps unwittingly, that's part of the problem--what do you do with yesterday's newspaper?

--David Kronke

Chris Whitley
Terra Incognita
(WORK Group)

If Steve Earle hadn't already claimed the tag, Chris Whitley could easily bill himself a hard-core troubadour. Born in Texas but raised in rural Vermont and central Mexico, Whitley learned blues the hard way--from Jimi Hendrix records, his own lonely childhood, and a decade of playing on the streets of New York and Brussels, Belgium. His 1991 debut, Living With the Law, introduced Whitley as a pastoral loner, a poet armed with a National Steel guitar. It was even a surprise hit, thanks to a tour with Tom Petty and the inclusion of "Kick the Stones" on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack.

Whitley's 1995 album, Din of Ecstasy, was a more challenging listen. Between albums, the guitarist ended a 13-year romantic relationship, and it shows in the blasts of dissonance and disturbing imagery--a hint that his gaunt good looks might be the product of a habit darker than a low-fat diet. Naturally, the recording was a commercial flop. If "Big Sky Country" from Living offered an endless horizon and limitless love, Din's "Narcotic Prayer" was all rough sex and cold-sweat addiction.

Terra Incognita finds Whitley trying to crawl back to middle ground. It opens innocently enough with "Flat As the Earth," a solo acoustic ballad that lasts barely a minute but captures a sense of how the absence of a loved one (whether human or chemical) can leach the vivid textures from everyday life. Many of Terra Incognita's other songs are built around longer incantations that gather power with each repeating figure. For lack of a better term, "Gasket" and "Aerial" are both dark blues boogies, but clearly Whitley has listened to John Lee Hooker and Sonic Youth more than Southern rock bands. "Immortal Blues" comes the closest to the rustic atmosphere of Living With the Law, but it's not as satisfying as "On Cue," which opens with the rhythmic flutter of what sounds like a movie projector before snaking steadily toward a harsh metallic solo that takes its cue from industrial music.

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