Short Cuts 

Rock's resident king of ch-ch-ch-changes returns.

Heathen

David Bowie

(ISO/Columbia)

David Bowie hasn't sounded quite like this in over 20 years. On Heathen, his new album, it's not that he's revisiting his old sounds and styles, as the hype has it, but he does more closely resemble the artist as a young man, his creations purer and less tempered by trends -- whether he's starting them or buying into them -- than most of his work from the last two decades. Subdued craftsmanship marks this album. Co-produced and engineered by Tony Visconti, who also plays guitar and bass here, Heathen gives us a mature, meditative Bowie/Visconti production reminiscent of yet unlike Bowie's best work, which, tellingly, was made with Visconti (1980's Scary Monsters was the last they co-produced).

With covers of the Pixies' "Cactus" and Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You," Bowie gives a lesson in making someone else's song your own, inflecting each with his own emotional perspective and time signature. Still a chameleon, he channels contemporary Peter Gabriel (or perhaps Gabriel channeling Bowie circa '71) on the "Biko" doppelganger "5:15 the Angels Have Gone," and, to give some idea of the range, sections of the album evoke the Stooges and Lou Reed, both of whom Bowie produced in the past. Serving as guest guitarists are minor deity and Scary Monsters backer Pete Townshend and Nirvana alum and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl.

Unlike the intimation of its title, which sounds like the name of some laughably awful death-metal band, Heathen is actually a very pretty, pleasant collection of songs. But the first tune, "Sunday," sets the tone for some other album. Though, according to Bowie, it was written before 9/11, "Sunday" opens into a weighty, otherworldly darkness punctuated by electronic dots and dashes and ominous, ambient humming before delivering some frighteningly clairvoyant lines: "Nothing remains"; "Look for ... signs of life"; "Look for the drifters"; "It's the beginning of nothing/And nothing has changed"; "It's the beginning of an end/And ... everything has changed"; "Now we must burn ... /Rise together/Through these clouds/As on wings"; "This is our number/All my trials, Lord/Will be remembered." -- Jeremy Spencer

Grade: B+

The Peer Sessions

Merle Haggard

(Audium)

"Stand up and meet the real Merle Haggard" boasts Roy Horton in the liner notes to The Peer Sessions, the seventh Haggard-related release of 2002. Then Horton goes on to write how great Hag is at mimicking other singers, as if imitation were synonymous with interpretation and the sacred nature of the dozen "classic" songs on the album inspired, perhaps demanded, faithful recreation instead of risky reinvention. Now, country music has always prospered in spite of its conservatism, but anyone can see that this is probably not the best strategy for a cover album.

Think of the exemplary cover albums of the past decades, such as John Prine's In Spite Of Ourselves or Bob Dylan's Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Both artists took chances with older material and brought out either its commonness or its strangeness. It's not unreasonable to expect the same thing from Merle Haggard. His singing and writing can rival both Prine's and Dylan's, he's already got a couple of good tribute records under his belt, and as 2000's If I Could Only Fly showed, his voice is still capable of a rugged, bellicose grandeur. But on The Peer Sessions, security and comfort are the order of the day. The ease of the armada of session musicians and Haggard's own nonchalance ensure the uniformity and anonymity of the performances. The closest thing to a memorable track is the opener, Jimmie Rodgers' "Peach Pickin' Time In Georgia," mainly because Haggard's off-pitch crooning makes him sound like Kirk Douglas. At other times, the laid-back odes to women and the South flit through the breeze on their way to oblivion, just a ripple in a long and winding career that's not half as dead as this release indicates. -- Addison Engelking

Grade: C+

Sharpen Your Teeth

Ugly Casanova

(Sub Pop)

Okay, I'll play along. Who is Ugly Casanova?

According to the press release accompanying Ugly Casanova's debut album, Sharpen Your Teeth, he's Edgar Graham, a "mentally unstable" fan of Washington state's existential art-rock trio Modest Mouse. He allegedly wrote all the songs on Sharpen Your Teeth, sent the demo to Sub Pop Records, and promptly disappeared.

The production notes credit him with most of the guitar parts and vocals, but he sounds suspiciously like Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock (except for lines like "all the government workers heading south," when he sounds like Beck). He's got the same high-pitched, hysterical voice, and his lyrics are similarly cracked and metaphysically minded. So either the Notorious E.G.'s obsession has graduated to perfect mimicry, or Brock has resorted to that age-old rock-and-roll cliché, the alter ego.

The songs on Sharpen Your Teeth reveal a lot. While Modest Mouse songs traffic in a bizarre brand of metaphor -- "My brain's the weak heart and my heart's the long stairs" or "You're the extra ton of cash in my sinking life raft" -- Sharpen Your Teeth's emphasis is on metaphor's little brother, simile: "We clung like barnacles to the hull" goes the lead track, "Barnacles." The comparison is telling: The difference between metaphor and simile mirrors the difference between these two indie entities. But Ugly Casanova is the weaker of the two -- unfocused and lacking the reckless daring, lyrically and musically, that enlivens Modest Mouse albums.

Buried in the back of the CD booklet, the songwriting credits reveal the truth. Brock and his collaborators are listed for each track, dispelling any doubts about who's really behind Ugly Casanova. It's a disappointment, especially coming from the man behind the Mouse. Chalking your eccentricities and neuroses up to mental illness is a lot less interesting (and uncomfortably exploitative) than claiming them as your own. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

Try Again

Mike Ireland and Holler

(Ashmont)

For the last decade, Mike Ireland's life has read like a bad country song: His wife left him for his guitar player, destroying his marriage, his home, and his band, the Starkweathers. Fueled by his broken heart, Ireland launched Holler, built from the remnants of the Starkweathers, in the mid-'90s. A rootsy outfit in the vein of Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich, Holler is more countrypolitan, with its sophisticated instrumentation and traditional song structures, than alt-country. Take, for instance, the weeper "Mr. Rain" on Holler's latest, Try Again. A string section gracefully anchors the song, bringing to mind Chet Atkins' saccharine-sweet country of the late '60s. It's your grandparents' music but better: Ireland's gritty tenor overrides the syrupyness, while guitarist John Horton's leads keep the orchestration on terra firma.

Jim Reeves would've killed for a song as good as "Right Back Where I Started," a delicate, acoustic-driven ballad that could flatten Nashville's current country scene like a steamroller. "I just tried to leave this place," Ireland croons, "Thinking I'd erase my sorrow with the miles/But you don't outrun a broken heart/You just put it off awhile."

Like its predecessor (1998's Learning How To Live), Try Again is an autobiographical song cycle -- this time about the pains of starting life over. The album's opener, "Welcome Back," finds Ireland visiting his hometown ("Damned if I can find/A single thing that looks the same"), a journey that's spiritual as well as physical. He addresses nostalgia, reconciliation, and, finally, renewal in under four minutes, heady topics for a country song. These themes run throughout the album, underscored by enough bitterness to keep Ireland in therapy for years. Yet Try Again is ultimately a redemptive effort -- 12 beautiful songs that will keep you thinking long after they're over. -- Andria Lisle

Grade: B+

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