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Molten Wax

Counting Crows This Desert Life (Geffen) Adam Duritz is fine. Really. We know it because he says so. "I'm doing all right these days," he reassures on This Desert Life. "Things are getting worse, but I feel a lot better. And that's all that really matters to me." Well, bully...
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Counting Crows
This Desert Life

Adam Duritz is fine. Really. We know it because he says so.

"I'm doing all right these days," he reassures on This Desert Life. "Things are getting worse, but I feel a lot better. And that's all that really matters to me."

Well, bully for him. Not so bully for us, however. The Counting Crows' third studio album skips along with perky acoustic and mandolin strings replacing the dark electric feedback that marked their strikingly self-indulgent previous effort, Recovering the Satellites -- where on one track Duritz had a piano temper tantrum while wailing for the world to "leave me, leave me, leave me alooooone" until you wanted to shake him by his natty hair extensions.

But on This Desert Life, Duritz is, apparently, fine. Even his bandmates testify to Duritz's fineness in the form of well-placed in-studio laughter and banter, proving to listeners that the vocalist is actually having some fun chronicling his early-'30s existence in late-'90s Hollywood.

This is not to say Duritz is "happy." He still obsesses about girlfriends, fame, insomnia and his hair (well, the last one isn't in the lyrics, but you just know he does). Only now does he seem able to handle his 'round midnight worries, leveling out, with the lows not so low, and the highs not so high. Matching his mood, the album meanders pleasantly along, with tune after tune of the Crows' carnival pop-rock. It's very clean, very likable, well-performed, inoffensive.

But where's the fun in that?

Duritz has never lacked passion, a quality that made his best work so moving ("Anna Begins," "Mr. Jones") and his worst so embarrassing ("Have You Seen Me Lately"). Wearing his heart on the album sleeve and whining a lungful, his wounds were open for fans to pick and snicker at, shamelessly longing to fly into the "instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird." Here Duritz is either tired of caring so much, or is much more guarded -- steering toward safer, vaguer topics, like a teenager trying to get past his parents and up to the privacy of his room.

Only on "Colorblind" does the listener get the sense of intimacy that marked the Crows' earlier work. The jangly guitars and back-up vocals are pushed aside, and you're left alone with Duritz and a beautiful bit of soft piano. "I am taffy stuck and tongue tied, stutter shook and uptight, pull me out from inside," Duritz sings softly.

He's working his way toward a lyrical confession. He's going to tell us how he really feels. "I am ready, I am ready," Duritz sings. "I am . . . fine." -- James Hibberd

Trailer Bride
Whine de Lune

Not even counting the sheer perfectness of the band name, Trailer Bride is notable among its North Carolina Triangle alt-country peers for its stylistic uniqueness. No mean feat with a Chapel Hill/Raleigh-Durham musical pool already well-stocked with post-Jason and the Scorchers barnstormers (Backsliders), nouveau traditionalists (Tift Merritt and the Carbines), dirt-surfin' loonies (Southern Culture on the Skids) and groups hell-bent for Gram Parsons (Whiskeytown). But vocalist/guitarist/harpist/saw virtuoso Melissa Swingle steers her Trailer like some hick cousin of PJ Harvey channeling Hank Williams while the entire Doc Watson clan strums and twangs lustily behind her.

1998's mostly two-track debut, Smelling Salts, sneaked its way onto a number of critics' year-end best-ofs, including yours truly's. For this sophomore effort, Swingle & Co. bought a few extra tracks, added a second guitarist and then proceeded to elaborate upon what makes 'em special. These assets are, variously: a lazy, back-porch-pickin'-session rhythmic groove that takes its own sweet time saying what it wants to say, but nevertheless swings as hard as award-winners like Alison Krause and Union Station; an instinctual approach to diverse arrangements that one minute soar up past the mountaintop in classic high-lonesome style, then the next seem as haunted as a midnight traipse through a paupers' burial ground; each player having a jazzman's knack for knowing exactly when to play and when to leave a space; and, of course, the aforementioned Ms. Swingle's astonishing set of pipes.

Whether melding Middle Eastern ethereality to surfy twang ("Pasture"), arcing across a swampy pond to land feet first singing the blues in a juke joint ("Work on the Railroad") or kicking up dust while doing a noirish two-step ("Dirt Nap"), Trailer Bride's fusion is a rare unqualified treat. And the title track, a virtual showcase for Swingle's many talents, is creepily cinematic. It finds Swingle's banjo and guitar plucking across desolate riffs while her saw oozes thereminlike moans in the background as her voice weaves an eerie, serpentine trail around notes that aren't even there. It's only a matter of time before some filmmaker like David Lynch discovers the band and signs Trailer Bride up for his next white-trash epic. A marriage made in heaven? Indeed. -- Fred Mills

Heavy Black Frame

It takes a little patience to find the way into Tram's debut long-player. Blurring the lines between indie and ambient rock -- abetted by long, floating and drifting sections -- Heavy Black Frame doesn't offer much in terms of signposts like hooks or catchy melodies. Instead, songs are flattened out, with extended instrumental passages offset by main songwriter Paul Anderson lazily singing as if he just woke up. Mining the same narcoleptic sonic landscapes as Mazzy Star and Mojave 3, Tram keeps listeners awake with more intricate playing and less ethereal vocals. Each song only has a handful of sparse elements, employing a traditional rock lineup often augmented with piano or organ, but the vocals and guitars are doused in reverb as if recorded in a train station.

For Tram, less is more. Often, songs are just sketches with the minimum elements necessary to qualify them as such, leaving it up to the listener to fill in the details. Yet within these small little fragments of music, beauty emerges. The minimalist approach adds more than a little weight of depression to "Expectations." A slow-burning, six-minute climb out of bed, the song is built on little more than bits of guitar, textured organ and bare-bones drumming. It hums along at a steady pace, resigned to its lot. But the beauty of the song comes from the interplay of the delicate instruments, carefully staying out of each other's way.

Just as evenly plotted is "You Can Go Now (If You Want)," which shifts its rhythms and circular melodies as it takes the band into instrumental post-rock territory. Similarly, "Like Clockwork" forgoes vocals in favor of a lyrical guitar melody that twists and winds its way through the song. This isn't aimless drifting; both songs are structured in a roughly pop format, it's just that they concentrate on building and releasing tension more subtly. Vocals would just be extraneous, and Heavy Black Frame is all about stripping away what's unnecessary.

These two instrumental tracks help frame the empty loneliness of the more countrified songs that have the same kind of unease that runs through the record. Tram's plaintive acoustic and slide guitars are given the murky tremolo and reverb treatment, particularly "Too Scared to Sleep," with its lonesome wailing guitars and distant harmony vocals. What makes Heavy Black Frame more than the sum of its sparse parts is the integration of subtle sounds and the ability of the musicians to play just enough to fill the air, but no more. It's certainly worth the effort. -- David Simutis

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