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POP MUSIC | $50 GUIDE

Williams, Case Reflect Life, Times

April 19, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Peter Case and Victoria Williams' marriage may not have lasted, but the singer-songwriters, alums of the glorious '80s Los Angeles club scene that also produced X and Los Lobos, are reunited in this edition of the Guide, which advises how to keep up with what's fresh in pop music on a budget of $50 a month. In a pop world where songwriters often seem to worry most about what's in style, Case and Williams actually spend some time thinking about life and what they want to tell us about it before going into the studio.

March

Peter Case, "Full Service No Waiting" (Vanguard). Though Case has continued to perform on his own and occasionally with the re-formed Plimsouls, the man who was once considered one of the brightest lights in rock has been reduced to such a low profile that you sometimes wonder how he finds the strength to keep going. The answer is probably the faith that he'd be able to write a collection of songs as intimate and heartfelt as this one. In the bluesy, rootsy songs, Case reflects on the passing of time and the lessening of opportunities, about dreams and lost chances. "We used to gather here to flirt and laugh," he sings in one song. "Now all my dreams are cut in half." For those who loved Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind," this is a good next purchase.

Mike Ireland & Holler, "Learning How to Live" (Sub Pop). The first surprise here is that this is a country album from the Seattle indie label best known for such alt-rock heroes as Nirvana. The second surprise is how deeply rooted the album is in commercial country music, not some experimental indie-country mix. Ireland, who formerly headed the rock group the Starkweathers, aims for a hard-edged honky-tonk sound and dark, troubling themes of obsession and despair. While he surely spent hours listening to everyone from Hank Williams to George Jones, the album's final surprise is that Ireland and co-producer Marvin Etzioni have framed the songs with the lush string touches that were a trademark of producer Billy Sherrill's '70s records with Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. Far more compelling than virtually anything you'll hear out of Nashville this year.

Victoria Williams, "Musings of a Creekdipper" (Atlantic). Williams points out in the album booklet that she doesn't usually include printed lyrics because "folks do a good job of making up their own"--and the comment makes a lot of sense. There is something about Williams' sweet, superbly crafted tales about simpler times and enduring values that invites you to join in--not simply singing along, but allowing your imagination to run free. The innocent, storybook images and gentle, folk-based arrangements contribute to a healthy, sunshiny undercoating that makes the music as therapeutic as it is thoughtful.

April

Madonna, "Ray of Light" (Maverick/Warner Bros.). Warning: The feedback on this album has been fiercely mixed. Some complain the dance textures of producer William Orbit are too tame. Others distrust the album's reflective tone, arguing that Madonna's songs about faith and family are simply another commercial calculation. For me, however, the album represents a genuine reach by an artist struggling to step beyond her image and examine the changes that motherhood and age have brought.

Propellerheads, "Decksanddrumsandrockandroll" (DreamWorks). This English techno duo shows some of the personality and the blistering beats of Prodigy, though not the rock-techno collision of that band. There is a slight sampler feel to "Decks" because the music moves around a lot from track to track, but the individual stops are quite invigorating. There are moments of humor and disarming pop instinct (from leering female sound bites and a disco-era nod on "Velvet Pants" to a spunky guest vocal by Shirley Bassey) as well as hip-hop allegiance (showcasing De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers on separate tracks). Worth a spin.

Common, "One Day It'll All Make Sense" (Relativity). So much of today's rap has become little more than the late-'90s equivalent of the numbing shock 'n' swagger formula of '80s heavy metal. But Common, a Chicago-based rapper, lives up in this late-'97 release to the legacy of the most commanding rap, recalling in his commentary (about everything from race relations to personal challenges) and imagination the early power of such artists as Run-DMC and Public Enemy. The music is delivered with some R&B and jazz-tinged arrangements as well as guest appearances by Erykah Badu and the Fugees' Lauryn Hill.

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