Apartment Life
(Atlantic Records)

What exactly is pop music? When Van Morrison was asked about the term in 1984, he said that to him it meant the pre-rock recordings of people like Rosemary Clooney. Pop is such an amorphous term that it can be applied to Barry Manilow one minute and Green Day the next, and no one thinks there's anything peculiar about it.

But those who remember when Top 40 radio wasn't a cesspool of bland ambitions know that pop is a form utterly distinct from rock 'n' roll, though it can spring from the same source of energy. Pop--as opposed to power-pop or pop-rock--is light, breezy, melodic, high-spirited music aimed squarely at your neurological pleasure centers. It's "Sugar Sugar," "Mony Mony," "Claire" and "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday." For some reason, it's also a musical form that makes Americans very uncomfortable.

Ivy's Apartment Life is the kind of pop they don't make in this country anymore. Unabashedly slavish to the verse-chorus-bridge format, buoyantly tuneful and not one bit angst-ridden, it sounds vaguely Britpop circa '83, when bands like JoBoxers, Haircut 100, and Madness flew their fop flags high. It's the kind of album which recognizes "ba-ba-da-ba-ba" as a potentially important lyric.

Sure enough, Ivy is not a purely American band. Lead singer Dominique Durand is an emigre from France, who purrs with all the breathy insouciance of a Claudine Longet. Backed by American cohorts, Adam Schlesinger (also of Fountains of Wayne) and Andy Chase, the band plays the kind of ear candy that most Yanks--except for geeky Oklahoma kids like Hanson--would be too embarrassed to touch, and it comes off like a savvier, postmodern cross between the Cardigans and Swing Out Sister.

Practically every Ivy song sounds like a forgotten hit single from a more innocent decade, with just enough guitar crunch in the mix to keep you from getting a fatal sucrose reaction. The brassy "This Is the Day" swings in high fashion, while the jangly funk-lite of "I Get the Message" suggests Hugh Masakela's "Grazing in the Grass" as performed by Josie and the Pussycats.

It might be wrong to look for messages on an album so dedicated to form over content. But, by the end of the 12th and final tune, a message does sneak through these industrial-strength hooks. Ivy is taking sounds that we generally refer to as guilty pleasures, and hinting that we needn't feel guilty about them. As much as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey have done to contaminate the term, pop remains an honorable form, and on Apartment Life, Ivy reclaims it for the good guys.

--Gilbert Garcia

Steve Earle
El Corazon
(Warner Bros. Records)

Maybe better than most of us, Steve Earle knows that life isn't tidy. If it was, Earle would be the king of Nashville for the way he cranked up the volume and twang on his 1986 album Guitar Town. He could have made a fortune with stylistic follow-ups since much of what passes for country today can trace its bloodlines at least in part to that recording.

Too volatile to color within the lines (even lines that he drew), Earle short-circuited his career with rock-oriented hybrids that didn't quite jell. Those hybrids--Copperhead Road and The Hard Way--were decent recordings, but they seemed forced by comparison to Guitar Town and its follow-up, Exit 0. The great heart beating in his best songs seemed to shut down on him, eventually leaving him a junkie on the streets of south Nashville.

On El Corazon, Earle's heart is wide open. So is his stylistic range. He juxtaposes old-fashioned country laments like "The Other Side of Town" with "Here I Am," a song on the edge of punk rock, and makes it work. His characters have political concerns, disappointing romances, flaws and fears. His voice, cracked and battered with no effort to gussy it up electronically, bleeds raw emotion. Even tender songs such as "Somewhere Out There" have a jagged edge.

With "Christmas in Washington," Earle has finally written a political song that doesn't pound people over the head with its message. The simple acoustic ballad invokes and echoes Woody Guthrie. The narrator, watching the buildup to Clinton's second inauguration, knows something stinks in an America of diminished opportunity even as "the Democrats rehearsed gettin' into gear for four more years of things not gettin' worse."

He calls on the spirits of Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., seeking an alternative to forced smiles and downsizing.

From there, he heads into "Taneytown," a story of mistaken identity, relief and remorse mixed with musical backing in a Neil Young vein, and then a bleak, rocking look at love called "If You Fall."

Just in time, the banjo-driven swing of "I Still Carry You Around" cuts the dark mood with a fond and wistful remembrance of not-so-lost love. "Telephone Road" is little more than a rock riff musically, but the riff effectively underscores lyrics about one of Earle's lost rednecks succumbing to temptation in Houston: "This ain't Louisiana/Your mama won't know."

He closes with "Fort Worth Blues." Another ballad in the Guthrie vein, it pulls the loop of sadness and loss tight. Earle ruefully admits that the highway isn't a home, but "the only place a man can go when he don't know where he's travelin' to." Ultimately, El Corazon makes a good argument that the trip is important.

--Salvatore Caputo


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