Recordings

-- Martin Johnson

Julie Miller
Blue Pony
(High Tone)

Blue Pony begins with "A Kiss on the Lips," a burst of late-'70s songwriter rock of the Nick Lowe/Squeeze variety, which serves splendidly to divert the listener who might otherwise be tempted to make all manner of Americana-style assumptions. Having made her point, Julie Miller lays back into a midpaced waltz through some scandalously viable new wave mountain music.

This is Miller's first secular album, and she comes previously commended as both artist and songwriter. Her woeful hymn "All My Tears" held its ground on Emmylou Harris' celebrity-spangled Wrecking Ball of 1995. She began performing in Austin at the age of 16 around 20 years ago and now brings us that classic fifth album that pop legends are made of.

Miller is definitely a sharer. Despite a strong and distinctive solo voice, she performs most of these songs with another singer. She retains focus by choosing partners possessing a fairly uniform vocal texture. Innocence Mission's Karen Peris joins her on a pristine Fleetwood Mac-like salvation song, "By the Way of Sorrow," their two voices seamlessly guiding each other through steps of courtly commiseration, invoking one of those Old World dances beginning with the letter Q. Harris' innocent warble adds a more translucent cast to "Forever My Beloved," while Miller herself strays from the quavering purity of Buffy Sainte-Marie (yes!) to some strangely Patti Smith-like moments.

An undeservedly neglected style of female-male vocal accompaniment forms the foundation of this work. Julie Miller has achieved a quite wonderful vocal rapport with Buddy Miller, her longtime partner and fellow High Tone recording artist. In the plaintive tradition of Harris and some early Patty Loveless recordings, the female takes the leaf while the male opposes her with a kind of contained and precise howl. This barefoot folksiness lends a sincere and faithful geometry to the proceedings, but there is an occasional world-weary manneredness about Julie Miller that sets her apart from her more traditional peers.

She sometimes seems to hold her words hostage, recalling the youthful Elvis Costello and other sensitive snarlers. She reluctantly unleashes truculent T's, fey R's, and disdainful S's (used to fine effect in the Costelloid trompe l'oeil staircase "All the Pieces of Mary"), yet Miller's delivery transcends ironic posturing, her songs appearing to arise from more than the soreness of trampled genius. Her simple statements of faith, hope, and sorrow in "Give Me an Ocean" are a much more accurate indication of where she's coming from. After all, her sleeve notes instruct listeners to "Be kind to children and animals." You know she means it.

-- Cath Carroll

Mark Eitzel
West
(Warner Bros.)

Bis
The New Transistor Heroes
(Grand Royal)

Perceptive you -- noticing that the above talents have little, if anything, in common. Perhaps you dread that imminent, heady push for synthesis, whereby Eitzel, a gloomy-gus singer, formerly of San Francisco's American Music Club, and Bis -- an ebullient Scottish trio who play pop punk, of sorts -- are proven to be not just similar, but downright sibling. Well, sweat not and keep your lunch down. The two parties are opposite; if they collided, they'd annihilate in a bright burst of introspective fluff. Eitzel is one of those critically "established" figures who provide evidence that rock can be a serious and mature art. He's also one of those lyricists who inspire rock writers to dredge up writing-workshop terms like "emotional landscaping." Bis are relatively new, definitely young (average age: 19), and imperatively silly; their landscaping is pure AstroTurf. Eitzel is backed by an able stable of pickup musicians, light on the percussion, and his new album, West, was co-written and produced by a member of R.E.M. (Which one? Does it matter?) Bis are supported by a drum machine and flaunt dorky-dumb pseudonyms (Manda Rin, John Disco, Sci-Fi Steven). Eitzel's song titles are full of evocative knickknack doom ("Free of Harm," "Stunned & Frozen," "Old Photographs," "Fresh Screwdriver") and imply story lines through rough-cut detail (on "If You Have to Ask": "So we drive around/ Don't worry I'm not lost/ The cab driver frowns"). Bis track titles are frivolous and often meaningless ("Sweet Shop Avengerz," "Popstar Kill," "Rollerblade Zero," and "Antiseptic Poetry"), while Bis lyrics (such as the infectious "Avengerz" chorus, "This is an advertisement!") are delivered with a comic brill, especially novelty-heavy on the part of keyboardist Rin. Eitzel uses spare and familiar chordal movements and slightly quirky instrumentation (including vibes, marimba, tambourines, tablas, and string arrangements) to provide the feeling that the proceedings are being "kept real" in the airless studio environment. Bis employ distorted guitar and hokey keyboard (these occasionally reeking of Faith No More's cheese) to produce a melodic and harmonic interplay that wends along fast, with a fairly rigid dynamic (headstrong, loud). Instrumentally, West ends up sounding like so many other products, by so many other mainstream songwriters formerly in bands. Going solo, they find themselves at the mercy of producers who finesse and embellish their material. At the end of this process, the songs end up sounding like nothing more than what they really are: a singer/songwriter's voice and acoustic guitar or piano needlessly festooned with elaborate side instrumentation. (Though, gotta say, this worked fairly well in the case of Liz Phair.) In fact, "Free of Harm" reminds me of nothing more than the output of John Cougar Mellencamp miraculously bereft of its rock -- Eitzel has always seemed, in fact, afraid, unable, or unwilling to rock at all. Bis are insubstantial, growing too old by the minute to pull off what they're doing any longer, and altogether frivolous, but they entertain, they adhere, they rock. Though The New Transistor Heroes is just another stick of sharp-edged bubble gum, let's not forget: Unlike West and most other mature, serious efforts, it rocks. Hence, it's fun. Guess which album I prefer?

-- Michael Batty

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