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Yes, just maybe a folk hero

RECORD RACK

September 30, 2008|Ann Powers; Randy Lewis; August Brown

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

The Fabled City

(Epic)

* * *

Some people think folk music is more honest than other forms, but it's also rich territory for alter egos. Bob Dylan called himself Blind Boy Grunt to continue making folk recordings as he was heading toward pop stardom; his early mentor, the Brooklyn-born Elliott Adnopoz, became a Wild Westerner as Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Tom Morello's folk persona, the Nightwatchman, is more superhero than cowboy or bluesman, but that's appropriate for a guy best known for working miracles with an effects pedal.

Morello debuted the Nightwatchman as an acoustic project, but on this second release he's decided to beef up the sound. Instead of the rougher edge cultivated for the 2007 debut, "One Man Revolution," Morello and producer Brendan O'Brien flesh out this set as rootsy rock.

The title track employs some Danny Federici-style keyboards, signaling some Bruce Springsteen love. Steve Earle, John Mellencamp and the Irish American group Black 47 are also touchstones.

By going for a band feel instead of the lone troubadour's stance, Morello can have more fun with his polemics. The Celtic-flavored "Saint Isabelle" and "The Iron Wheel" (with Shooter Jennings adding some drawl) should inspire some beer-sloshing along with any marching, while "Lazarus on Down" is a bit of spooky introspection aided by Serj Tankian's dramatic wail. The well-rounded production serves lyrics that are often more poetic than topical, even when addressing crises such as Hurricane Katrina.

The enriched production helps with the Nightwatchman's own dose of Kryptonite -- Morello's baritone, which is fairly off-putting at first. Recalling Nick Cave (minus the growl) or Jurassic 5 rapper Chali 2na (minus the flow), Morello's singing could inspire chuckles rather than revolution. But on "The Fabled City," he and O'Brien have dressed it up enough to make it seem almost super at times.

-- Ann Powers

--

The message is definitely mixed

Kellie Pickler

"Kellie Pickler"

(19/BNA)

* * 1/2

One of the increasingly fascinating sidelights of the "American Idol" phenomenon is seeing what each season's top finishers do after their debut albums have come and gone.

Some have quickly faded from memory (Justin Guarini, Diana DeGarmo), several have gone to Broadway and movies (Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson), some have struggled to assert post-"Idol" artistry (Kelly Clarkson) and at least one has risen to greater heights than she achieved immediately after winning her "Idol" crown (Carrie Underwood).

Pickler stretches out her sophomore effort (in stores today), co-writing half of the album's 10 songs and, she says in the accompanying press materials, injecting more input into the song selection and arrangements than she had on 2006's "Small Town Girl."

There are individual moments of accomplishment, but the album is like a Whitman Sampler, with a sweet tidbit for listeners in pretty much any stage of a romantic relationship, leading to a fairly scattered emotional palette.

The prevailing attitude is "Don't get mad, get even" with guys who bail out or girls who steal guys -- though she stops a bit short of the flat-out lust for revenge in Underwood's "Before He Cheats" or Miranda Lambert's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."

The standout is "Best Days of Your Life," which she wrote with 18-year-old Taylor Swift, who sings harmonies too, taunting an ex about how he'll regret leaving soon enough. "I'm Your Woman" is pure Shania, and "One Last Time" is a farewell that yearns to be Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" when it grows up.

The biggest puzzler is "Don't You Know You're Beautiful," another of those too-common pop culture messages of empowerment aimed at women: "You're wishing you had designer jeans / Like the ones you see in magazines. . . . But your worth ain't on the outside / It comes from within."

Nice words, but they're sandwiched in between a handful of glamour-model photos of Pickler in a series of body-hugging designer outfits. Is anybody out there paying attention?

-- Randy Lewis

--

Who's that on the dance floor?

Mercury Rev

"Snowflake Midnight"

Yep Roc

* * 1/2

Mercury Rev has capably re-invented itself for nearly two decades, from freaky jazz to noise collages and its backbone of glacial art-rock. But the one place fans might never have expected to find them was on a dance floor.

The electronica-heavy "Snowflake Midnight" flirts with pristine digital hiss, sauntering '70s French synthesizers and the thickly filtered bottom end so ubiquitous in today's disco. Aside from a few hokey nods toward 12-sided-die prog terrain, the band's exceeding earnestness dovetails well with its new compositional aspirations.

While the lyricism of "Snowflake Midnight" often reads like self-parody of Sensitive Guy Delicacy -- see "A Squirrel and I (Holding On . . . and Then Letting Go)" for evidence -- the band's sonic reach generally lives up to its grasp in this new terrain. "Senses on Fire" and "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower" play to the nosebleed seats with gang vocals and Boredoms-style over-driven drums, while Eno-ambient noodlings such as "October Sunshine" are rich and narcotic.

The missteps come when Mercury Rev's sense of drama overwhelms its better judgment in sounds.

"Runaway Raindrop" should prove once and for all that spoken-word interludes are never a good idea, and "Faraway From Cars" beats its hand clap samples to a bloody death.

But Mercury Rev's overarcing vision of tenderhearted sonic sprawl is often moving, if occasionally also moving ones eyes to roll.

-- August Brown

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