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Wednesday, May 5 1999
Tom Waits
Mule Variations

Tom Waits coined the word "surrural" to describe the music contained on his 14th studio recording. And it is true that Mule Variations fuses the surreal with the rural -- but Waits forgot to mention that it also contains darkness, suspicion, and heart.

Earlier this decade, Waits and his collaborator/wife, Kathleen Brennen, left Los Angeles for the country. But instead of signaling

giving up or growing up, the move seems to have signaled the opposite: a new era for the creative partnership, which found a different set of objects and concepts to mine.

With its folksy title conjuring up barnyard animals and the chicken shack/recording studio in which it was made, this CD's sounds and images are also the reflections of a stubborn guy who's spent the better part of 15 years shaking off his barroom bard image. Experimenting with found sounds and crazy carnival instruments, and merging them with his singer/songwriterly leanings, Waits has repeatedly instructed his longtime cast (guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Larry Taylor, and Ralph Carney on horns and reeds, among others) to "play it like a midget's bar mitzvah" or some similar directive, resulting in his characteristic old-timey, clankity-clank sound. Mule Variations finally expands on the formula.

A most hellacious noise (Waits as human beatbox) and "Big in Japan" starts off the album, with the men of Primus making chain-gang-appropriate noises. It's familiar, pure post-Swordfishtrombones Waits, but eight songs in, he's sprung a turntablist into the mix (DJ M. Mark "The Ill Media" Reitman of local band Go-Go Market) for "What's He Building?," a bebop meditation on what the neighbors do behind closed doors.

There are murder and suspicion ballads ("House Where Nobody Lives," "What's He Building?"); Leadbelly- and Robert Johnson-inspired blues ("Cold Water," "Lowside of the Road," "Black Market Baby"), and deeply personal songs ("Picture in a Frame," "Take It With Me"). Some fit into more than one category, like the true tale of "Georgia Lee," which would've been at home on Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. With Waits' characteristic compassion it's elevated to something more, as he suggests culpability -- even God's -- in the matter of a girl's murder in the woods.

One of Waits' greatest gifts is his use of familiar, almost hokey phrases ("digging to China") and poetic imagery ("broken China voice") to punctuate his unique sound. Mule Variations is proof that you can take the junkyard dog out of the city without getting him out of the junkyard. Besides, everyone knows they have better junkyards up there, anyway.

-- Denise Sullivan

Fountains of Wayne
Utopia Parkway

Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are smart guys, if not outright smart alecks. Hook-wise and quick with the appropriate ironic line, their self-titled 1996 debut was chirpy and pure guitar-pop, perfect for those who found Everclear too moody. But for all its disingenuousness, the album was mainly silly love songs, with all the small-town-girl cliches that come with it. For a pair of songwriters who were competing on Phil Spector's turf, a line like "For a small girl Barbara sure has a big crush" simply wasn't going to cut it.

Three years later, though, both Collingwood and Schlesinger have immersed themselves deeper in pop history's primordial soup; both contributed to Francophile popsters Ivy's winning Apartment Life album, and Schlesinger toiled on Smashing Pumpkins' side projects, as well as writing "That Thing You Do!" for the Tom Hanks vehicle of the same name. Their months in pop music's salt mines must have taught them something: Now, with an actual backup band instead of session men, and actual songs instead of the occasional clever quip, Utopia Parkway is a near-perfect epic song cycle about, of all things, suburbia, and more radically, loving the culture.

So, from Pink Floyd laser shows to malls to drunken nights at tattoo parlors to the prom night where all your idealism gets smashed to pieces, the band piles on sparkling guitars, keyboard riffs like Sno-Kone syrup, sha-la-las for miles, and enough handclaps to fill the Rose Bowl. And more cliches, too, except that this time around they're smart about them. "She works at Liberty Travel," Collingwood exclaims on the lovelorn "Denise," "She's got a heart made of" -- a knowing pause here, and you guessed it -- "gravel."

Moments like that -- and there are dozens of them across the album -- help prevent Utopia Parkway from decomposing into so much N'Syncery. Besides, N'Sync doesn't know from the Byrds, but "It Must Be Summer" proudly jingle-jangles. Not that Fountains of Wayne are in love with the suburbs -- they wink and nudge lyrically too much for that. But every time Collingwood hits a high note and the rest of the band sha-la-las behind him, they sound like they're falling in love with the myth of its perfect hedges, its beautiful gated community sunsets, and the pop songs on the car radio that promise eventual escape. And that's a pop trick as old as the Beatles: Take a sad song, and make it better.

-- Mark Athitakis


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