-- Jeff Stark

Guy Clark
(Sugar Hill)

Guy Clark went un-studio in the late '80s, choosing a more informal, acoustic setting for his celebrated songs -- and that's what you'll hear on Keepers, his first live album in over 20 years of commercial recordings. The venue is the Douglas Cafe in Nashville, and the selections were taken from three nights of performance. Many of Clark's songs are reminiscent of the previous generation's Cash-style tale-telling, with that old Live at San Quentin vibe. However, brace yourselves! Times have changed -- the phrase "son of a bitch" (heard on this CD in several variations) is no longer drowned out by the censor's bleep.

Clark's childhood -- spent under the care of his grandmother, who ran the only hotel in town -- is painted into the songs' lyrical post-Depression scenery: the old salesman kicking up papers in "That Old Time Feeling" (his first significant hit), the threadbare elevator man of "Let Him Roll," and the assorted dodgy individuals knocking around "Out in the Parking Lot." The characters are beautifully true to life, drawn from a time fast fading into history. Clark's drowsy, hazy, avuncular rasp trawls lazily through the troubled narratives, yet rises up in melodies with a fine, full-bodied musicality. Witness, for instance, the Texas swing jump vocal in "Heartbroke."

His band shines throughout, staying discreetly in the background as Clark sings, then blooming between verses with clouds of lacy mandolin and Ye Olde Worlde accordion. Guy Clark's easygoing, gritty crooning gives a primary impression of a straightforwardness that is alternately sentimental and hard-bitten. Later on, you might pick out the undertow of sadness: "That old time feelin' comes sneakin' down the hall/ Like an old, gray cat in winter, keepin' close to the wall" ("That Old Time Feeling").

Clark's short introductions to songs quickly capture his dry, self-effacing humor. He describes the first time his hometown of Monohans, Texas, saw a streamlined train: "It was like a shuttle launch. The whole town turned out." After a sliver of a pause, he adds, "The train didn't stop or nothin'." Then he goes into "Texas -- 1947," a true, chugging classic train song ("You'd've thought Jesus Christ hi'self was rollin' down the line").

He introduces one new song as "the antithesis of the 'Boot Scootin' Boogie' -- basically right up my alley, heh, heh," referring guardedly to Brooks & Dunn's bouncing party favorite. We cannot see Clark's facial expression at this point, but we can be sure that in his dry, discreet way, he is reflecting upon the various aesthetic atrocities that thrive around modern line-dance remixes. Not only does Keepers give you an excellent collection of songs performed the writer's way, it also paints a deft portrait of a quietly humorous man.

-- Cath Carroll

Creeper Lagoon
Never mind the inevitable transformation of pop bliss into kitschy shame over the course of time -- the process whereby the chart hogs of one decade (rightly) become hairdo jokes in the fossil record. What about daring the fine line between the two in the present? Take the clean-toned guitar arpeggios and simple backbeat that begin "Second Chance," the last and best track of Creeper Lagoon's eponymous EP. The sonic distinction between this and the same sort of thing used in both ass-end-of-new-wave and pop-metal ballads is hard to make -- and yet all the enjoyable consonance is there, with none of the pre-emptive embarrassment. While the track contains every nuance of a steadfast studio production -- an out-of-phase lead over the abrupt overdriven chorus, among other things -- Creeper Lagoon, a San Francisco quartet, prove that it's still possible to make great studio-based music, as outre as that sounds in this era of stewing over authenticity. We're clearly not dealing with some terribly weighty product here -- the opening track, "Dear Deadly," sounds like someone's being asked out on a date ("Can't you/ Spend just a little bit of/ Precious time for the cinema") -- but lyrical boy-girl preoccupation has always been the stuff of upstanding studio effort.

Most pleasant about Creeper Lagoon is the way that ingredients are introduced gradually, building upon one another. "Sylvia" 's initial sparse hip-hop beat is joined in turns by a simple, ambient synthesizer tone, a major-key guitar arpeggio, and the first stark lyrics: "Sylvia/ What do we do?/ Here we are/ Waiting for you." Why everyone's waiting for Sylvia, I dunno -- I'm just fond of the way the whole thing fits together without her, whoever she is. Additionally agreeable is the near-miss quality of the vocals, which, in landing just left of pitch now and then, sound all the more plaintive while hashing out the vague story indicators ("You said you wanted a real life/ This is a real life") atop the fetching instrumentals. And that's the goal of most rock studio products, whether passe or lively: to give you a pretty aural collage, a tune to hum, and not a philosophy. Much of the material probably couldn't be reproduced live. "Drop Your Head," for instance, contains backward swooping guitars. (No need to try pulling that off in person; you'd only hamstring yourself.) And though a lot of Creeper Lagoon is reminiscent of the entire Swervedriver canon -- another source of fine-line bliss and embarrassment -- we have nothing to be ashamed of yet.

-- Michael Batty

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