Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published November 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Whether you like R.E.M. or not -- and more and more, that seems to depend on your tolerance for Michael Stipe's fey tortured-misunderstood-artist routine -- you can never fault the craftsmanship of the group's records. In that respect, "Up" is more of the same: Sometimes the lyrics are of dubious meaning or significance, relying on clever rhyme schemes but ultimately ringing hollow ("So happy to show us, I ate the lotus"). But at the very least, "Up" is always sonically intriguing. Stipe and longtime band-mates Peter Buck and Mike Mills delight in building songs out of complex layers, playing with dynamics to give their melodies shape and drama. Track by track, you can't help wondering what they're going to come up with next. You'd think that after playing together for some 15 years, they'd show at least a few signs of artistic weariness, but mostly, they're game and raring to go.

That's not to say that everything on "Up" is uniformly impressive. Stipe tends to sing in hypnotic, drifting phrases -- the sound is pleasant enough, at times even elegant, but sometimes the band's songs blend into a monochromatic blur because of it. Even so, there's enough here to keep jolting you to attention: On "Diminished," a man who has apparently committed a crime of passion ponders how to play the jury, but he also lets us in on his desolation and desperation. "Baby I loved you, baby I loved you, baby I'm finished," he sings, a lonely figure sketched out in shadowy silhouette against a pedal-steel guitar sunset. The dense, rich sound of "Suspicion," with its lush, rosy strings, is steeped in the tradition of '60s pop -- it's silly and seductive at once. "You're so funny, you're so fine, you're so perfect, you're so mine," Stipe sings, sounding both as if he means it and as if he might be having a bit of fun for a change.

In fact, Stipe is almost always at his best -- or at least his most charming -- in his simple love songs, when he leaves the tortured wordplay behind. In the dorkily lovely "At My Most Beautiful," he sings earnestly, "I count your eyelashes secretly/with every one whisper I love you." R.E.M. throws in everything but the kitchen sink -- there are some Partridge Family doot-doot harmonies, and a chunky slice of cello wedged in at the end for good measure -- and it all works beautifully. The time and care R.E.M. puts into its music always shows. But it's when the band is relaxed and having a good time that they really blow you away.

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Kate and Anna McGarrigle

-->BY J.D. HANNAH | Kate and Anna McGarrigle have made a career of piercing hearts. Perhaps no pair of vocalists sing harmonies that sound so beautifully sweet and at the same time are sad enough to induce almost instant despondency. There are plenty of such moments on "The McGarrigle Hour," the sisters' latest sweetness-and-sorrow fest recently released on Hannibal.

With an intriguing mix of original songs, traditional ballads and covers, "The McGarrigle Hour" is as much a family reunion as it is a retrospective capturing the essence of 30 years of music making. Anna's husband, Dane Lankan, and their children Sylan and Lily make appearances here, as do family friends Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and Kate and Anna's sister Jane. The CD even features a collaboration with Kate's ex-husband, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, and their children Rufus and Martha on one of the album's most moving songs, a cover of Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do."

The poignancy of the saddest songs might be unbearable if the McGarrigles et al. didn't also possess abundant reservoirs of humor and cleverness. For example, according to the liner notes, "Heartburn," sung by rising star Rufus, might be about love -- or "it might be about Ebola."

Raised in a musical household in Canada, the McGarrigle sisters have taken special care throughout their career to record traditional songs, and several -- including "Dig My Grave" and "Baltimore Fire" -- are included here. But each of the album's 21 songs tells a story, and the resulting weave of beauty, humor and sadness is graceful and elegant. Most families preserve their legacy in photo albums; the McGarrigles have "The McGarrigle Hour," and it's more vivid than any picture.

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Silver Jews

BY JOE GROSS | Filmmaker John Cassavetes once said that as Americans our emotional lives more or less stop developing at 21, and that it was his job as an artist to make films that forced folks into further stages of evolution, to make an art representative of fully rounded adulthood.

Silver Jews leader/poet David Berman is determined to create similar music, and the songs on "American Water" are a wonderful case for 30-something underground rock. Having dismissed the band's cool but limiting nonfidelity vibe a few years back, Berman moves ever closer to his goal: "American Water" is relaxed without undue mellowness, crafted without being stodgy. Reunited with Pavement's Steve Malkmus on guitar and vocals, and augmented by the nuanced bass playing of Mike Fellows, who has lent his genius to such bands as Rite of Spring and Royal Trux, Berman's music genuinely swings for the first time in his career. His slack-god poetry rests upon spare, modern country rock: call it John Wesley H|sker. "Honk If You're Lonely" is the nearest thing to straight-up Nashville. (Old-school Charlottesville scenesters will remember this as co-writer Gate Pratt's song, in which "horny" replaced "lonely" -- adjust as you see fit, but either way you probably won't hear Brooks & Dunn cover it any time soon.) Totally absent is Pavement's famous archness: "We've been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads," Berman sings on "We Are Real." Berman makes all of his byways -- be they secret back roads or suburban cul-de-sacs -- as real as the steps you take and the air you breathe.

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Bruce Hornsby

BY JOHN MILWARD | Rock 'n' roll piano players typically fall into one of two camps: rhythmic pounders brought up on Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, or singer-songwriters attuned to the more theatrical strategies of Elton John and Billy Joel. Bruce Hornsby breaks this mold by taking a much more improvisational approach to his instrument, a trait that led to a second job touring with the Grateful Dead. When he turned 40, Hornsby also devoted himself to renewed musical studies that kept him at the piano for three to five hours of daily practice.

The chops from all that woodshedding are all over "Spirit Trail," a release that grew to two discs after Hornsby came off a recent tour with a surfeit of new material. The wealth of tunes, however, only accentuates the divide between Hornsby's roles as songwriter and player. Hornsby has long favored story songs, but the tunes on "Spirit Trail" tell us more about the musicians than the characters in the lyrics. "Preacher in the Ring," a song about snake-handling religious revivalists, is given two interpretations, first with a boogie-woogie beat and then framed by a more ponderous, folk-rock arrangement. The result is two good performances, neither of which brings us any closer to understanding the fundamentalist milieu.

"Spirit Trail" catches the ear with musical moments, like the way horns play off Hornsby's piano in "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," or his deft quote of Donovan's "There Is a Mountain" in his solo on "King of the Hill." But instrumental virtuosity is no substitute for truly memorable songs. In an age that downplays musicianship, Hornsby remains a most valuable player, but he'll truly succeed when his songs not only frame, but complement his formidable musical chops.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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