Recordings

Bjork
Homogenic
(Elektra Records)

The very idea of Bjork is so appealing that you can feel like Ebenezer Scrooge for even hinting that her music is somehow deficient. In an industry never short of calculating frauds, Bjork is a force of nature and an absolute original: someone who can intuitively merge a child's sense of wonder with a feminist rage and express everything in the unfiltered vernacular of a warped surrealist. Likewise, her voice is an unfettered, exotic instrument that's instantly recognizable but almost impossible to imitate.

Then why is it that her albums tend to be such ponderous affairs? Maybe the very elements that make Bjork such a fresh presence in small doses--e.g., a free-spirited lack of commitment to structure--grow wearisome over a whole album, when she spends too much time aimlessly scurrying around the harmonic equator above static electronic tracks that sound like they were scooped up from Kate Bush's cutting-room floor.

Bjork's previous solo albums were at least good for a couple of striking singles ("Human Behavior," "Army of Me," the big-band cover "It's Oh So Quiet") which resulted in otherworldly, indelibly lavish videos. The depressing thing about Homogenic is that even the "good" moments aren't quite as happening as they've been before. On the plus side, the lush "Bachelorette" is a nice showcase for Bjork's vocal melodrama, and the opening "Hunter" neatly makes its case for her emotional wanderlust: "Thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me." But the overall shortage of inspiration on this album is enough to make you wonder if Bjork shouldn't try tracking down some of those long-lost Sugarcube phone numbers.

--Gilbert Garcia

Greg Garing
Alone
(Paladin/Revolution Records)

With mainstream country music little more than refried Eagles and the "Americana" alterna-country scene a cooling plate of old Burrito Brothers crumbs, there's not much innovation out there for country connoisseurs to sample. But just when you think there's nothing new in country's cornpatch, up pops a sound at once fresh and familiar, a new and tasty take on time-honored treats.

Like Alone, the debut CD from Greg Garing, a onetime Nashville retro-tonker who relocated to New York and figured out a way to hog-tie trip-hop technotica and wrap it around kinda-country songs. The results, for the most part, are guaranteed double takes. They make for a stylistic shotgun wedding of studio trickery and down-home tradition that works in wonderfully unexpected ways.

The surprises start from the git-go, with the opening cut, "My Love Is Real," an arresting slab of hip-hop hoodoo and gritty, swampy techno. The unlikely sonic alchemy is startling at first, but that off-kilter feel helps enhance Garing's pleading, multitracked vocals as he wonders, "Why must you do the things/True lovers never do/Always aware of the pain that I feel." The sentiment, though hardly new, is made extra haunting and unsure by the pared-down, sharp-edged backdrop.

Garing's studio acrobatics are less convincing when his songwriting stalls. "How the Road Unwinds" comes off as a nervous, surfish rockabilly ride that doesn't quite get where it's headed, and "Where the Bluegrass Grows," a well-intentioned tribute to the late Bill Monroe, finds Garing and bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan picking and squinting through so many skewed backwoods sounds it's impossible to pick out a melody, much less keep the lineage straight.

Garing is far stronger when he keeps up with his own vision. At his best, he rivals PJ Harvey in pounding out emotions that slice and dice at odd angles. "Don't cry baby . . . /Look beyond your sight/Trust in me, hopelessly/Blinded by the light," he sings on "Don't Cry Baby," the song's title and verse teetering between threat and request, all with an anxious ambiguity. And then on "Fallen Angel," Garing closes the CD by crooning, "Sometimes people change/Sometimes angels fall from the heavens," his reedy, Jimmy Rodgers-spooked voice both knowing and hopeful. The song's jungled-up bluegrass and jagged beat make for a nice finale, and one that helps mark Alone as a fascinating, creative schematic of a wounded soul's dark pages.

--Ted Simons

Various artists
One Step Up/Two Steps Back
(The Right Stuff)

"Rock music" is a huge umbrella, especially when you consider that Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie both fit under it. Even though Bowie and Springsteen write for and about outsiders, they're outsiders from different planets. Bowie's 1975 slice of early Bruce, "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"--featured on the new Springsteen tribute album One Step Up/Two Steps Back--gets the ironic, hypermannered treatment you'd expect from The Man Who Fell to Earth, and it blows. Substituting pallid, world-weary detachment for blue-collar sincerity may have been intellectually appealing to Bowie, but the results are an ocean of weak tea. In Springsteen songs, the heart always wins out over the head.

On the other hand, Bowie's backing band, which included axman Carlos Alomar and Springsteen keyboard man Roy Bittan, showed that there's plenty of room for interpretation in the seemingly cramped confines of a Springsteen song.

Musical malleability is not the first thing most people think about when Springsteen is mentioned. The force of his personality and the E Street Band's signature sound often mask his stylistic diversity.

When John Wesley Harding strips the testosterone from "Jackson Cage" with a gentle acoustic guitar, he finds a melody that Springsteen's shouts hid. What Harding doesn't change is the emotional directness of the main character, who pulses with empathy for a woman stifled by suburbia. John Hiatt turns unrepentant "Johnny 99" into a big-footed voodoo stomp, while Dave Alvin makes over "Seeds" into an edge-of-Johnny Cash exercise in paranoia.

The 28 tunes--14 of them new recordings, 14 of them old--generally feel soulful and committed. A good number of the songs here, such as Southside Johnny's "The Fever," were never officially released by Springsteen. Only the most faithful fans would have heard all of these songs before.

All of which helps this album avoid the futility of most tribute discs. You won't ask "Why did they bother?" when you hear Marshall Crenshaw's full-throttle rooster strut on "All or Nothing at All." He sounds like he couldn't live without it.

--Salvatore Caputo

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