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Wednesday, Oct 23 1996

Couldn't we develop some sort of mandatory euthanasia program for aging rock stars? OK, maybe we wouldn't kill them. But how 'bout a device to discourage continued recording? The same folks who pass out gold records could affix some sort of electronic anklet while the recipient signs autographs or mugs with the plated vinyl. Let's say the artist's next record sucks. The anklet, triggered by a remote switch, will glow yellow for a warning period. (Who said this idea is heartless?) But one more shitty record and the gadget goes into red alert. Step near a recording device, and the electronic anklet spits out 100,000 volts.

I nominate Donovan Leitch to guinea pig the new device. Donovan would have gone into yellow back in 1969 when he recorded Barabajagal with help from the Jeff Beck Group. Acid rubber-brain followed this work, leading to the terrible Cosmic Wheels, a pile of astrological garbage released in 1973. Red alert could have saved the catastrophe that followed: nine Donovan records in the '70s and '80s.

Donovan must have known it. He quit rock 'n' roll 13 years ago. But Rick Rubin (who pried the hypothetical electronic anklet off Johnny Cash two years ago) talked Donovan into a new studio project, Sutras. The result is another argument for preventative shock therapy. Like the latter-day hippies who try to hang on to the quasi-spirituality that the flower children squeezed out of dope, communal living, and books by Alan Watts, Donovan's gone New Age in the 1990s. Sure, he alluded to that crap back in the Age of Aquarius, but Donovan was at his best when he got down to specifics, like LSD ("Sunshine Superman"), beatniks ("Season of the Witch"), and groupies ("Super Lungs My Supergirl").

Now, on Sutras, Donovan's all drip. Six of the 14 tracks feature lyrics copped from Irish blessings and Buddhist or Chinese texts. Most of the rest might as well be. "Universe Am I" 's got Donovan crooning, "One day when the secrets of the Sun/ Enlighten everyone/ The Universe will shine." And the rest is dreck too, save the lovey ballad "Give It All Up." Which actually is a pretty good idea for the folky troubadour. If not, bring on the anklet.

-- Jeff Stark

Silver Jews
The Natural Bridge
(Drag City)

The ideal setting for listening to the Silver Jews requires a barren, wood-floored apartment in wintertime New Orleans. An armchair and a record player, a gray dawn, and some fading Southern freak show passing beneath your balcony, tentward bound. Your tea is cold from the night before. You nodded off in your armchair and dreamt that handsome Confederate soldiers danced with ladies of distinction in your parlor. Rather than being offended at the past taking such liberties, you think the invasion overdetermined and sad.

But you have the Silver Jews' newest release, and you spin the platter once more. David Berman's often flat baritone and image-ridden lyrics, and the bare-bones band -- guitar, piano, bass, and drums -- all coalesce, enabling you to embrace your depression. By the second song you realize there is indeed a structure to nothing. In fact, you start to feel that you might pull out of this funk and beat whatever it was that killed Quentin Compson up at Hah-vard in 1910.

The Natural Bridge is a typically primitive and beautiful Drag City production that echoes recent work by labelmates the Palace Brothers, old, acoustic Leonard Cohen, and Loaded-era Velvet Underground -- namely, effective, slightly out-of-tune folk chord progressions with melodies on top, that, in and of themselves, aren't particularly interesting. The real mint julep is in Gentleman (not gentile-man) Berman's lyrics. And this is coming from a critic who regards lyricists with skepticism -- one who believes that a couple of well-shouted "yeah"s can mean much more than all of Bob Dylan's highfalutin grumblings.

But it's not just the words; it's how they function. They're custom-built (sort of) to fit the off-key melodies that overlay the aforementioned out-of-tune movements between folk chords. The words extend the music and keep it from becoming derivative. They duct tape it all together, like some sort of brand-new, yet piss-poor, broken-down thing which, as you sit there in your empty apartment at dawn, brings on the understanding that loss and loneliness and estrangement are indeed the caviar of human experience, and should be enjoyed as such.

-- Curtis Bonney

James Carter
Conversin' With the Elders

Not the least of its many remarkable qualities is the paradoxical ability of jazz to change and yet to remain jazz. The earliest music bearing the name -- the polyphonic marching band style of New Orleans -- was overthrown in favor of the brilliant solo work of Louis Armstrong. Satchmo's swing was scrapped for the advanced harmonic improvisations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The '60s free jazz players like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane showed just as little sentimentality for their bebop predecessors when they dispensed with the chords to pursue modes.

Each generation of listeners has been surprised to see what direction jazz would take next, even as players constantly looked to ignored elements of their own tradition for that direction. As we arrive at the fifth generation of this unique music, we see all of these elements of renewal, surprise, and the tension of conservative synthesis with revolutionary exploration in the playing of James Carter. The 27-year-old Detroit native's three previous albums display total familiarity with the earlier music of Duke Ellington, Don Byas, John Hardee, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, and Sun Ra, as well as virtuoso abilities on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, flute, and bass clarinet. What they do not display is any slavish imitation of these past idols. Conversin' With the Elders rings the changes on this fresh combination of the traditional and original by bringing some of the great players of past generations into the studio. Count Basie alumni Harry Sweets Edison (trumpet) and Buddy Tate (tenor sax/clarinet) join Carter for "Lester Leaps In" and "Centerpiece," and "Blue Creek" and "Moten Swing," respectively. Carter honors his hometown teacher Larry Smith with a romp through "Parker's Mood." More contemporary pieces feature trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett of the World Saxophone Quartet.

None of Carter's albums have been able to completely capture the galvanic effect he has achieved in live performances at Yoshi's, but for those looking for an entry into the cutting edge of today's jazz, this is it.

-- Ira Steingroot


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