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Elliott Murphy "Unreal City" Razor & Tie

June 10, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

In 1973, two young rockers each touted as "the new Dylan" released debut albums that took their titles and inspiration from shore-area amusement attractions in the Northeast.

One album was called "Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey." You already know the rest of that story. The other was "Aquashow," by Elliott Murphy, a name that only true students of pop are likely to find familiar. The New Yorker put out four albums during the '70s, none of which escaped obscurity. During the '80s, Murphy focused his career on Europe, where he had better prospects.

Last year Razor & Tie issued a Murphy career retrospective, "Diamonds by the Yard." Now he is back with a strong new album that strikes a nice balance between his philosophic-intellectual bent, his wry wit and his romantic's warmth.

Murphy won't ever shed the Dylan comparisons--it's there in his nasal, reedy voice. But he is no more a copyist than such well-regarded figures as Mark Knopfler and the "Hunky Dory"-era David Bowie, both of whom are echoed on various tracks of "Unreal City." You can also hear strains of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground--not surprising, since Murphy came out of the lower-Manhattan underground scene that the Velvets had launched.

Stylistically, "Unreal City" is a simple, unpretentious, mostly low-key foray into folk-influenced rock. The arrangements on these 15 concise tracks are dominated by the singer's acoustic guitar and Dylanesque moaning harmonica, which ride atop moderate rhythms laid down by Ernie Brooks, original bassist of the Modern Lovers, and David Johansen's drummer, Tony Machine.

Murphy isn't afraid to reveal a little book-learning: The album's title and closing song of benediction, "Let It Rain," allude to T.S. Eliot's landmark poem, "The Waste Land." Like his halfway-namesake, Murphy worries about the chances of finding a meaningful life in a time of decaying morals and crumbling social standards.

Before getting to the philosophical stuff, he opens with a five-song sequence about that old pop standby, seeking, losing and finding love. "On Elvis Presley's Birthday" takes the album into deeper thematic waters, but it's built on the simplest of materials: Murphy's recollections about how his dead father looked and talked, and how he shared with his son an enjoyment of Elvis's music. With "The Epicenter," Murphy finds himself in a land of the living dead--or at least the morally dead: "You got a conscience or something? Hey man, that's all through." In subsequent songs he gradually climbs out of that morass and recaptures things that give life meaning--culminating with the closing affirmation of "Let It Rain." The song shows the sweep of Murphy's interests by nicking the meter of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," alluding wittily to "The Shining," soberly to Ecclesiastes and coming 'round to the aforementioned Eliot.

While he hits on Big Ideas in his songs, Murphy's conversational delivery keeps him anchored to the earthy and human. One fine example is "Greetings From Sydney," in which, to strains as simple and quiet as a hobo campfire song, Murphy traces a traveling musician's path to sanity, self-understanding and an appreciation of the basic dignity and value of what he does.

There's no glitz or thunder in "Unreal City," but you come away from it feeling as if you've had a good talk with an intelligent conversationalist who isn't afraid to open up emotionally.

(Razor & Tie Music, P.O. Box 585, Cooper Station, New York, N.Y. 10276)

Murphy performs June 18 at Cafe Largo, 432 N. Fairfax, Los Angeles. (213) 852-1073.

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