Recordings

Jeff Buckley
Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
(Columbia Records)

When singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River last May, the media treated it like a pop-culture footnote, of little interest to anyone but his rabid cult.

Years from now, when the dust finally clears, informed music fans may come to realize that Buckley's accidental death at 30 was a greater musical loss than Kurt Cobain's suicide at 27. Sure, it's a heretical thing to say, but the facts bear it out. In 1994, Cobain was a burned-out, disillusioned icon having trouble coming up with new material. He was sick of Nirvana, but he couldn't envision a new direction. Buckley, on the other hand, was a wide-eyed musical innocent whose curiosity and creativity knew no bounds.

Unfortunately, unlike Cobain, Buckley had yet to really make his mark at the time of his death. His only releases had been a four-song live EP and the promising album Grace. The Grace album revealed an artist blessed with a voice of astonishing range and power, and a willingess to plunge into outrageously dramatic emotional terrain. However, it seemed clear that the best was yet to come.

In 1997, Buckley headed to Memphis to work on his follow-up to Grace with a crack band and producer Tom Verlaine of Television. The new double CD Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is a sprawling, frequently wonderful document of Buckley's unfinished album. Though the tracks were all incomplete at the time of Buckley's drowning, this collection offers evidence of what made Buckley so simultaneously exciting and maddening.

The sheer range of the talent revealed here is startling. The yearning falsetto soul of "Everybody Here Wants You" could make the former Prince green with envy, while the propulsive "Nightmares by the Sea" is about as good as punk-influenced pop ever gets. Like no other male singer around, Buckley had both the technique and the feel to sing virtually any kind of music with authority. The gorgeous New Wave jangle of "Witches' Rave" also suggests that he might have had some Translator or Bongos albums in his collection. The deranged horniness of "Your Flesh Is So Nice" sounds like a particularly inspired PJ Harvey solo demo, while the droney "New Year's Prayer" delivers on Buckley's love for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The best material here indicates that Buckley had the basis of a great album in the can. But his work was slowed by both his studio perfectionism and his paradoxical belief in improvisation and spontaneous composition. During his Memphis stay, he regularly performed on Monday nights at a downtown club called Barrister's, armed with only his electric guitar. He would test out works in progess, attempt to create songs on the spur of the moment, or tell long stories about his childhood. The results could be dreadful, but part of what made Buckley special was his willingness to go out on a limb and gleefully saw it off. Some half-baked, rambling material surfaces here ("Back in N.Y.C.," "Demon John") in demo form, and it leaves you wondering whether Buckley would have ended up using these songs, or what he might have eventually done with them in the studio.

Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, compiled this set, and she understandably didn't want to omit anything important, so she paired the indulgences with the strokes of genius. Being that the two CDs clock in at a combined 92 minutes--and that two songs recur in only slightly different versions--a wiser move would have been to trim My Sweetheart down to a stronger, 15-song, single-CD set. But that's a fairly minor quibble at this point. Whether the masses knew it or not, Buckley was a major artist, and even the rough sketches of a major artist are valuable.

--Gilbert Garcia

Bill Cosby
I Started Out As a Child
Why Is There Air?
Wonderfulness
Revenge
To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With
(Warner Archives)

Before becoming a wholesome, middle-aged TV curmudgeon talking about his wacky adventures raising his kids, Bill Cosby was a skinny young standup comic with a vivid memory for--and gift for embellishing--his wacky adventures as a kid. Cosby could remember the curse words that he threw at another kid he was angry at--"You gunky! You stink!"--and redeliver them with just as much passion as when he was a 7-year-old on the streets of Philadelphia.

These five albums, produced between 1964 and 1968 by Roy Silver and/or Allan Sherman, had a profound effect on American comedy, primarily because they appealed so much to kids. If you were born in this country after, say, 1958, there's a good chance that you wore out these records.

They were, indeed, the first extended standup comedy to which many boomer kids were ever exposed. Fat Albert, a fairly minor character described by Cosby in the "Buck, Buck" routine on the 1967 Revenge, became such a well-loved figure by kids that he eventually was made the star of his own long-running '70s Saturday-morning cartoon.

To the nostalgic adult listeners at whom these reissues are aimed, Cosby's stories are now more warmly amusing than riotous, but they're no less engaging. What's noticeable now is the speed and verbal dexterity with which he alternates character voices, sound effects and narration--it's a style that shows an influence on talents as diverse as Richard Pryor and Robin Williams--and his clever use of the microphone to modulate his effects. Possibly the most virtuosic display of these techniques is his sublime re-creation of The Chicken Heart, a (real) Arch Oboler radio play from the old Lights Out! series.

Perhaps these reissues will allow parents who grew up with these albums to try them out on their kids and see if Cosby's art, in its pure, pre-Jell-O pudding form, can still work magic.

--M. V. Moorhead

 
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