Natalie Imbruglia
Left of the Middle
(RCA Records)

Natalie Imbruglia radiates star power. A common first reaction to the video for "Torn"--a much-recorded song that Imbruglia has now made her property--has been, "I don't know who she is, but she's gonna be huge."

Imbruglia is an Australian model/singer whose chiseled cheekbones and doe-eyed visage stand out even in the looks-obsessed recording industry. In the video for "Torn," she comes off as waifish but tough, cute but serious, postmodern but vaguely traditional. In other words, all things to all MTV viewers.

If Imbruglia's video image is undeniably striking, her musical gifts are a bit harder to pinpoint. Though she possesses a pleasant, fairly supple voice, it hardly stands out among the parade of pop pretenders cluttering the airwaves. One senses that, in lieu of any solid direction of her own, Imbruglia and her parade of producers have modeled Left of the Middle after the earthshakingly successful example of Alanis Morissette.

It's easy enough to understand. Morissette was a grinning, poufy-haired Canadian Debbie Gibson who cunningly convinced the American masses that she was an angst-ridden young artiste. Perhaps Imbruglia senses a similar opportunity. In any event, Morissette's prints could hardly be more evident if she had smudged her thumb across the master tapes. "Intuition" is a dead ringer for Morissette's "One Hand in My Pocket," and on the second verse, Imbruglia even mimicks the wolf-call falsetto wail that Morissette stole from The Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan, who stole it from Sinead O'Connor. The song even approximates the calm acceptance of "One Hand in My Pocket," with Imbruglia singing: "Intuition tells me that I'm doing fine."

The Alanis connection is further cemented with the angry "Don't You Think," which owes quite a bit to Morissette's breakthrough hit "You Oughta Know." Like Morissette's hit, this song builds from a quiet, ominous verse into a loud, bombastic chorus. The results are predictably empty.

Overall, Imbruglia doesn't make enough of an emotional connection even to be annoying, but what does grate is the way this featherweight performer is being packaged as a serious artist. At least with the Spice Girls, you know what you're getting.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
The Newton Boys: Music from the motion picture
(Sony Music Soundtrax)

It should come as no surprise to fans of director Richard Linklater to hear that he's highly knowledgeable about music. For one thing, in the mid-'80s, he contributed some notorious film projections for Butthole Surfers concerts. For another, his films fairly scream his biases. The cast of Slacker was littered with underground music heroes from his hometown of Austin, Texas, and his follow-up film, Dazed and Confused, derived much of its nostalgic juice from the constant booming presence of well-chosen classic-rock anthems from the '70s.

Now, with his fifth feature film, The Newton Boys, Linklater has ambitiously stepped into a period drama about a gang of Texas bank robbers in the Roaring Twenties. The film has inspired a similarly ambitious musical approach, as Linklater uses Austin bluegrass trio the Bad Livers to re-create the heady saloon ambiance of a time and place where urban jazz and hillbilly country met, where fiddles and banjos traded solos with trumpets and clarinets.

The music is lovingly re-created throughout, without ever succumbing to mindless duplication. The Bad Livers' wild romp through "Alabama Jubilee" suggests that no other band on the planet could have handled Linklater's requirements so skillfully. Part of the fun is hearing how Austin performers generally associated with rock, like singer Kris McKay, slip so naturally into the spirit of an era they could only have read about. McKay's yearning treatment of the classic "After You're Gone" would be worth the price of admission on its own. The fact that it's so ably supported by the rest of this material only proves that this is one of those unique cases where film music can stand on its own.

--Gilbert Garcia

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks
The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000
(Rhino Records)

Talk about longevity--when these two first sat down to create this routine, a guy named Eisenhower was in the White House. Between 1960 and 1963, they released three albums of instantly classic comedy, followed by a 1973 album that was even better. Unlike a lot of fondly remembered comedy of days gone by, all of these recordings still have the stuff to get you chuckling. The premise is simple: Straight man Reiner feeds questions to Brooks, who riffs on matters of history and current events from the very personal perspective of the world's oldest man. Asked if he knew Joan of Arc, he replies, "Knew her? Dummy, I went with her!"

With the millennium approaching, the time was right to check on the health of this old friend, and of the world. The old guy, at least, is in great form. This new CD is proof that less--two guys with active imaginations and microphones--is more. Reiner leads Brooks through reminiscences of an early draft of the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not squint" didn't make the cut), the bubonic plague ("Too many rats, not enough cats") and his authorship of the very first self-help book (title: You Are Who You Are if You Think You Are). A modern-day highlight is Brooks talking about the freedom to say "fuck" that he got from watching Martin Scorsese movies. It's all great stuff; these guys should be on postage stamps. I'm hoping it's not 20 years before we get another visit.

--David Gofstein


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