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All ears

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Are you serious?

Boys and girls, think for a moment before trying this at home: Tell your friends that your favorite record of the month is the new one by William Shatner.

Yes, that William Shatner.

I'll be over here waiting, and will be ready to console you after you're laughed out of the room. Meanwhile, I'll be playing and re-playing Has Been (Shout Factory), the disc on which Captain Kirk is joined by producer/co-writer Ben Folds. It's one of the most fascinating records to come my way in quite a while - all the more so because its appeal is not simply the "oh my God, I can't believe he took this seriously" which greeted The Transformed Man, the completely ludicrous record Shatner made back when his career was solid.

You put it on, readying yourself for some belly laughs (have you heard the magnificently cynical "In Love," his 1998 guest appearance for Ben Folds' side-project Fear of Pop?) and instead are met by a searing cover of Pulp's "Common People," on which guest backup singer Joe Jackson sounds as good as he's sounded in 15 years. From that rock fix, we slide directly into a jazzy reminiscence called "It Hasn't Happened Yet," whose candid expressions of disappointment come as a surprise.

After all, aren't we listening to this because Shatner is finally in on the joke of his life? After the Priceline commercials, isn't this album supposed to be a traipse through the irony garden?

Nope. Prepare to not be disappointed. Sure, there's comedy here - quite a bit of it, actually - but it's complicated, and clothed in all sorts of swell pop songwriting. (Thanks, Ben!) Then there's the album's startling midpoint, where "That's Me Trying" is followed by "What Have You Done." The former is a glib little tale of an estranged father calling up a child he hasn't seen in 20 years; you laugh at the guy's inept attempts to make the interaction go well, but there's an undercurrent of real sympathy in the song. This weird bittersweet vibe gives way to a startling a cappella track in which Shatner recalls the real-life moment when he found his wife drowned at the bottom of their swimming pool.

Folds' ability to make that fit into this very odd album is really impressive, and is one of the things that makes Has Been a must-have.

This would heresy in some circles, but let's segue from Bill Shatner to Nick Cave. Cave is a brilliant songwriter and an incendiary performer, but it has always been impossible to take him 100% seriously. That's part of his appeal, I think; the depths of his gothic depravity might have been insufferable if he didn't give some indication, however slight, that he knew he was ridiculous. His new double album, Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus (Mute) is being hailed as Cave's comeback masterpiece, but still invites you to look at it askance. The title song of the second disc, for instance: When he talks of Orpheus waking God from his sleep, Cave notes "God was a major player in Heaven."

Few can sneak stuff like that in as Cave does and still make you listen with a straight face. It helps if you can fit in so much compelling stuff on two albums at a time; the first brings the brimstone while the second displays the kind of sweetness that has come to the Bad Seed in his later years. Personally, I don't see what Cave had to "come back" from - it's not like he's sucked over the last few years - but any excuse to celebrate this singular artist is welcome.

Speaking of singular artists, a two-disc tribute album was recently released in honor of Texas' Daniel Johnston. Discovered Covered (Gammon) reveals that Johnston's famous fans number more than Yo La Tengo and the late Kurt Cobain; Beck has a cover here, as do Tom Waits and the Flaming Lips. Younger sensations like Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie join the fun, and in a move that more tributes should imitate (especially the ones honoring more obscure songwriters), the second disc gathers Johnston's original versions of the covered tunes.

Finally, two notes on recent All Ears columns: Sharp reader Ana Wandless notes that Jon Brion does indeed have a self-released solo record out, which can be bought online a http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jonbrion. She says it's awesome, which makes it all the more annoying that the disc can't be found in a store near you. Also, hip-hop poet/agitator Saul Williams will be coming through Texas next week, appearing Tuesday at Emo's in Austin. The front page of Williams' web site sports a map of Red vs. Blue America, so I guess we should be happy he's coming to Big Bad Texas at all, whether he's playing an S.A. show or not.

By John DeFore


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