By John DeFore
The Good: I've never entirely clicked with Australian songwriter Paul Kelly, but that changed almost immediately upon hearing his new Ways & Means (SpinArt), a double-album that both contains some of his finest work and (with co-producer Tchad Blake) crafts a sonic setting for it that is just polished enough to draw you in, just spare enough to keep Kelly's writing in the foreground.
Kelly really stretches out, covering a lot of atmospheric ground. Disc one begins with a reverberating, spaghetti-western/slow-surf instrumental that gets us in cinematic mode, then jumps into the cheerful storytelling of "The Oldest Story in the Book," a micro-epic about the vagabond artist's life. Then it's on to "Heavy Thing," a lust-filled blues that's like the White Stripes for grownups, and "Beautiful Feeling," a honey-sweet ode to those first giddy days when a covert romance goes public.
Disc two is darker, starting with a lonesome plea for gratification and wandering through the soulful accusation "You Broke A Beautiful Thing." There's "King of Fools," an elegantly countrified number that would be at home on Nick Lowe's latest record; even on "My Way is to You," where our narrator has found a love, his dedication is draped in overtones of criminal trespass. Together, the discs present a songwriter who deserves more recognition than he has gotten until now.
The Bad: I've been inclined to defend the integrity of Mel Gibson's latest movie - whatever its problems, it's a very pure work of art - but this new record, Songs Inspired by the Passion of the Christ (Universal), makes me sick to my stomach. It may be true that all the songs here were born of Christian faith (though last I checked, Leonard Cohen was a Buddhist), but the record's packaging suggests that they were actually inspired by "A Mel Gibson film" - a pretty tough sell, considering how many of them were written in the 20th century. All in all, it hardly matters that there are some fine performances and beautiful songs here; the record comes off as the most cynical kind of money grubbing. (I would be curious, though, to see Billy Graham's face when he learns that a snippet of his sermonizing - in which he declares he is "absolutely sure" he's going to Heaven - is on the same disc as a Nick Cave song that talks of "Napoleons and cunts." How will Gibson's fundamentalist fans feel about him personally choosing that song for them? Or the Christian book and record stores that are stocking the disc?)
The wonderfully ugly: As I type these words, my ears are under assault. They're being pummeled by an entity known as End, whose debut record The Sounds of Disaster (Ipecac) is aptly named but more fun than any car wreck or industrial accident I've heard about. The record is fast and loud and willing to make room for every electronically generated percussion sound you've ever encountered, and then some.
According to the liner notes, End features such suspiciously named musicians as Giorgio Marauder, Adolf Hasselhoff, and Yanni Cash. Maybe, maybe not. There may be nobody on the disc other than songwriter Charles Peirce, who has a habit of adopting a plethora of pseudonyms. According to Peirce, End was inspired by a rockabilly band who continued to play even when a club's fire alarm shrieked madly over their set. Makes sense: Pieces of musical business almost never go it alone here; bits of soundtrack exotica get trampled by jet engines, breakbeats are beaten down by broken synths, and drum machines - well, drum machines and samplers just fight with each other in the most delightful ways. A guy who works with Ipecac calls Peirce a "sample terrorist," which describes his sound pretty well. I don't aerobicize, but if I did, it would be to End. •
By John DeFore