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Pop Music | RECORD RACK

Jubilant and purposeful songs

R. Kelly puts his legal strife aside in a fine new set

August 22, 2004|Richard Cromelin; Robert Hilburn; Steve Hochman; Steve Appleford

The Fiery Furnaces

"Blueberry Boat" (Rough Trade)

*** 1/2

With the 2003 debut "Gallowsbird's Bark," the Brooklyn-based band built around Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger fashioned a musical language so private-sounding one might have assumed the two were twins and not merely siblings.

It's even more so on the follow-up, which isn't as much an invitation as a challenge to explore their world. At 76 minutes of oddly cobbled suites and peculiar obsessions, starting with the 10-minute, restlessly shifting "Quay Cut," the album is a bit daunting and demanding. But it's also compelling and rewarding.

Expanding well beyond the first album with a PJ Harvey-meets-Ween mix of blues-rock and twisted carnival music, "Blueberry Boat" is a journey through an interior world where a lost locket is an omen of never-ending sorrow, where moments and tokens of joy are to be hoarded fiercely, where childhood fears only grow in adulthood.

"There was a little bird at my backdoor, said 'Your true love's let you down,' " Eleanor sings in "Chris Matthews" (the "Hardball" host?). Yeah, it's that kind of world.

And yet there's colorful magic alive in the music and lyrics, as fears are brought into the open. It's not Disney magic, of course. But meet the modern, musical Siblings Grimm.

*

Basking in a gloom that's light around the edges

Mark Lanegan Band

"Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet)

*** 1/2

Mark LANEGAN needs the darkness. He likes it there, with a voice and raw delivery landing somewhere between Jim Morrison and Clint Eastwood's "man with no name," a shadowy growl of cigarettes and broken glass. He no longer requires the bright lights and MTV fame he knew as the singer of the Screaming Trees, so Lanegan continues to grow as an artist, embracing his darker, moodier self.

Lanegan sounds haunted and engaged here, groaning of desperation and madness on "Methamphetamine Blues" ("Don't want to leave this heaven so soon ... ") and valentines and revolvers on "Bombed," a spare folk duet with Wendy Rae Fowler, or drifting into the manly croon of "One Hundred Days."

He's not humorless. "Bubblegum" is an ironic title for an album that seethes and rocks with real energy and depth. There's more here than songs of bad times and worse vibes. "Bubblegum" again unleashes the rocker within, which may have something to do with these last few years as a mysterious, sometime member of Queens of the Stone Age and Desert Sessions.

This album is credited to the Mark Lanegan Band, but the album is the result of a wide range of collaborations, with the singer joined by the likes of PJ Harvey, Joshua Homme of Queens, two ex-members of Guns N' Roses, plus guitarist and co-producer Chris Goss, among many others. It all just feeds into the Lanegan subterranean worldview. Moody, gloomy fun.

*

A pair of old friends pick up right where they'd left off

The Notorious Cherry Bombs

"The Notorious Cherry Bombs" (Universal South)

***

This reunion project deserves attention even if you don't know the back story, though that history is useful because it involves two of country music's most respected figures: Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell.

The singer-songwriters worked together more than 20 years ago in Crowell's old band, the Cherry Bombs. Some of that old all-star gang got together again two years ago and had such a good time they decided to go into the studio together.

This kind of "just for the love of it" endeavor can be risky because musicians often find out they don't have a lot in common after all these years. But this album is a wonder -- the most enticing country album since the Loretta Lynn-Jack White collaboration last spring.

It's fun when the Bombs toast their heroes -- the minimalist Johnny Cash touches in "Oklahoma Dust" and the exaggerated George Jones melodrama in the lighthearted "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night ..." But it's even more enchanting when Crowell and Gill showcase some of their own sweet sensibilities, especially "Forever Someday," which features one of Gill's most evocative vocals.

There's not the striking, alt-country fervor of Lynn's "Van Lear Rose" here, but the key tracks are marked by a spirit (free and frisky) and craft (solid and smart) that once was a hallmark of country music.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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