Short Cuts 

Return of the singer-songwriters.

The Houston Kid

Rodney Crowell

(Sugar Hill Records)

This is easily the best thing Rodney Crowell has ever done. With his finely tuned ear for writing pop-inflected country, you would have thought that Crowell would have been a runaway success in the genre that's today termed "country" music. Although he's written songs for a bevy of artists in Nashville and beyond, individual success has eluded him. With this self-financed album, clearly a labor of love, he's stopped trying to please the record company or a target audience, and the result is magnificent. Also, with the death of his mother in 1998, he's finally free to write about his tumultuous Texas childhood.

The Houston Kid vividly evokes the rough and tumble milieu of growing up in Houston on the wrong side of the tracks and the traumas and triumphs involved in coming of age in that particular place and time. Intensely personal and often painful, it graphically draws on Crowell's father's alcoholism and spousal abuse, with portraits of the white-trash criminals and desires that marked his youth.

The grit and rawness of this album are surprising but very powerful. Moments of bleak beauty, like the lachrymose guitar riff on "Wandering Boy" and the spooky spoken piece "Highway 17," are juxtaposed with joyful, healing tunes like the redemptive closing track and the ruminations of "Banks of the Old Bandera." "I Walk the Line (Revisited)" is a rockabilly recounting of Crowell's epiphany when he was a 9-year-old kid and heard the Johnny Cash classic for the first time, with the Man in Black himself as a guest vocalist on the track. (Damn, does that old man's voice still send shivers down your spine or what!?) A welcome return to live recording effectively nixes Crowell's tendency to overproduce and keeps things fresh. The Houston Kid is a tale of paradise lost and regained, a wonderful and, by turns, terrible tale of a Texas boy's life. -- Lisa Lumb

Grade: B+

Just What Time It Is

Jeb Loy Nichols

(Rykodisc/Rough Trade)

Jeb Loy Nichols' 1997 debut, Lovers Knot, was an earthy, organic album that belied his roots in alt-country music while revealing his adventurous spirit. Pulsing with unique beats and marked by his seemingly effortless songwriting, Lovers Knot positioned Nichols -- with his froggy voice and dry delivery -- as a less quirky, more substantial Lyle Lovett.

Just What Time It Is, Nichols' follow-up to that modest masterpiece, is a more upbeat affair, recorded in Jamaica and boosted by a wider array of musicians bringing reggae and island flavors to his songs. Such influences are readily apparent in the production on the new album, which seems designed to both highlight the grooves and beats that thread the songs together and to add a richer texture to Nichols' signature vocals. The beats are, for the most part, no significant departure from those on the previous album, and some reggae-styled elements like the unintelligible Jamaican patois on "Perfect Stranger" and the female backup singers seem arbitrary, if not out of place completely. In playing up these extraneous elements, the exacting production unfortunately achieves an antiseptic, flavorless atmosphere.

But that's just the surface. Shining through the fretted-over sound are Nichols' awkwardly beautiful voice, his quietly soulful delivery, and his elegant songwriting. A dark mystery permeates the call-and-response verses on "Say Goodbye to Christopher," the album's best track, as Nichols describes the last time he saw a friend. And "Sadly Sometimes" proves to be the most bittersweet lament since Freedy Johnston's "Bad Reputation."

Ultimately, Just What Time It Is exudes a certain charm that heralds a genuine talent. On songs like "Heaven Right Here" and "Trying to Get Over," his lyrical and emotional pitch is dead-on. Such generosity of spirit overwhelms any misguided recording decisions and makes Just What Time It Is a truly compelling showcase for Nichols' skill and sincerity. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

Quiet Is the New Loud

Kings of Convenience

(Source/Astralwerks)

In a scene from Animal House, John Belushi encounters a slick hippie-type singing "I gave my love a cherry" to a bunch of googly-eyed, toga-clad girls on the steps of the Delta house. In a brilliant act of primitive rock criticism, Belushi pauses to consider the scene, yanks the acoustic from the dude's hands, smashes it in a rage against a wall, then hands the shards back and says, "Oops."

On their major-label debut, Quiet Is the New Loud, Norway's Kings of Convenience -- Erlend Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe -- are that hippie on the stairs, and whether or not you smash their acoustic guitars against a wall depends on your threshold for self-consciously intelligent, supersensitive, beauty-as-rebellion pop music in the vein of Ida, Kingsbury Manx, and Belle and Sebastian. Quiet Is the New Loud is pleasant enough -- nice to listen to and unobtrusive.

But like the Animal House hippie -- who was really looking to get in some coed's toga -- Kings of Convenience have some ulterior motives, and theirs are much more sinister than party sex. They are, in short, looking for someone to rescue and nurture, someone who'll reinforce their role as the strong protector.

On "Winning the Battle, Losing the War," they sing, "I am on my feet to find her, to make sure that she is safe and sound," then they feel compelled to add, "To make sure that she is safe from harm." In "Toxic Girl," a girl won't return the protagonist's affection, so he regards her as damaged. Underneath all the sympathetic crooning, tasteful guitars, and pastoral strings, Kings of Convenience view women as weak and diseased.

At worst, that's an extremely insidious attitude. At best, it's certainly unhealthy. Either way, it means you'll want to aim for their heads when you smash their guitars. -- SD

Grade: C-

The Blue Trees EP

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

(Mantra/Beggar's Banquet)

Change is meant to be embraced first and reviled after it's been assessed as a crap move. I'm getting a lot better about dealing with music in that particular order, but then again, I'm getting a lot older. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (oh-so-very sadly pronounced "Gorky's Zygotic MUNCHIE") enjoyed their medium-profile salad years sharing a rambunctious unpredictability with fellow Welshmen Super Furry Animals, although theirs was an uglier eclecticism saturated with prog-rock love. As the millennium approached, Gorky's steered clear of copying SFA's grandiose endeavors (genre-allergic double-album sung entirely in their native tongue) and cuddled up to subtlety.

Granted, I get a little put off with this band's now perfected Belle and Sebastardization of the Fairport Convention/Richard Thompson legacy, but I am not one to turn a cold shoulder to face-slapping beauty, which pops up more often than not during these 28 well-spent minutes. The title track even lifts a riff (but leaves behind the emotional wallop) from Thompson's "End Of the Rainbow" -- launching a record that not only delivers a big salute to Britain's wildly fertile '60s/'70s folk-rock scene, but also gives fans of Nick Drake and John Fahey something contemporary to obsess about. Good stuff. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: B

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