In 1994, back when he was going by his real name and playing in San Francisco's Mommyheads, guitarist and singer Adam Cohen penned a perfect little pop song called "Spiders," an upbeat remembrance of morbid childhood anxieties. Such was the band's stock in trade -- smart pop songcraft spiked with something a bit more sinister -- that it was only a matter of time before a major label stepped in and proceeded to muck it all up. 1997's The Mommyheads -- the first and last album the quartet would record for DGC -- was a sodden, befuddling disc of good songs and murky kitchen-sink production, ruled by the heavy hand of Don Was.
Now, as Adam Elk -- a name change forced by Leonard Cohen's son trying his hand at music -- Cohen gets to broaden his musical ambitions without forcing the matter. Part of the credit goes to the cast of new musicians he's assembled, including Kinetics singer Bart Davenport and ex-Mommyhead drummer Dan Fisherman, who help keep matters simple but effective on Labello, his first solo album. On record, Cohen displays the modest, hook-driven balladry of his indie-pop past ("Love Money," "Ripple Effect"), but also showcases successful stabs at soul ("It's Raining in Here"), classic rock ("Big Wheel," "Maybe You Faked It"), and country-folk (the Dylan-esque "Lease"); only on the cliched, watery funk of "Too Much of Nothing" does he sound like he's trying too hard. If he's not the next Dylan, he's at least the next Michael Penn: a humble-minded pop stylist who knows his way around a studio and, more importantly, knows when to stop the studio from getting the best of him.
Adam Elk performs Friday, July 16, at 9 p.m. with Mumblin' Jim and Ultramafic at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary (at Fillmore), S.F. Tickets are $9; call 346-6000. He also appears Thursday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight (at Stanyan), S.F. The show is free; call 831-1200.
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