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Damn Sweet The Dear Janes

Skirt
(Sore Thumb)

One of my greatest musical loves from the latter half of the ’90s is a record called No Skin, the second album by an Anglo-American, female duo called the Dear Janes. No Skin came out with little fanfare on Geffen Records, then Geffen dropped the ball with them (as they did with so many other artists of the era) and I assumed that that was that.

But it wasn’t, hallelujah, and now the Dear Janes have got a new album called Skirt out, this time on their own Sore Thumb label. Skirt finds the Janes’ Barbara Marsh (the American one) and Ginny Clee (the Brit) singing and plinking stringed thingies with aplomb, occasionally backed up by (among others) selected members of Billy Bragg’s the Blokes, an incredible band in their own right, featuring the latter-day rhythm section of Shriekback (bassist Simon Edwards is Clee’s husband), Ian MacLagan of the Faces, and Lu Edmonds of the Damned, Shriekback, 3 Mustaphas 3, PiL and just everyone else who mattered in England for the past quarter century. Bragg and all the Blokes get together to add their hearty, humble backing vocals to the lovely “Ship” (co-penned by onetime Golden Palomino Syd Straw), and pedal-steel guitar legend B.J. Cole adds shimmery touches to a pair of tunes as well.

But, ultimately, this is Clee’s and Marsh’s record, and they’ve created 10 exquisitely written and beautifully sung songs, each one a keeper, each one a loving take on the sorts of dark mental and emotional states that we generally don’t like to look at in loving, exquisite or beautiful terms. Vocally, the Dear Janes sound a wee bit like Kate and Anna McGarrigle, when the Canadian sisters are at the absolute top of their game, although this record’s production (by Edwards and longtime Peter Murphy associate Howard Hughes) and instrumental performances are better than anything that’s ever appeared on a Mc-Garrigles record, with the possible exception of the canon-defining Matapedia.

Record highlights on Skirt include the aforementioned “Ship,” the lyrically clever “She Was the Dynamite,” the harrowing and emotionally raw “Too Much Girl,” and the song-defining, descending melody line of “This Is Hell,” which will at least make your trip in the direction of damnation as sweet as it possibly can be.

—J. Eric Smith

Alanis Morissette
Under Rug Swept
(Maverick/Warner Bros.)

While it seems unlikely that Alanis Morissette will ever repeat the staggering success of her breakthrough disc, Jagged Little Pill, she has nonetheless carved a niche for herself as one of the more literate angst addicts in contemporary chick rock. The dubiousness of that stature is underlined throughout Morissette’s latest effort, Under Rug Swept, on which she declares her independence from producer-cowriter Glen Ballard, the man who shaped the sound of her last two albums. Ballard’s absence is noticeable, because the tunes on Under Rug Swept have a numbing sameness—Morissette still knows how to craft hooks, but she overdoes just about everything, smothering melodies with too-dense arrangements and, as usual, hammering points home with endless verbiage.

Several tunes on Under Rug Swept have powerful attributes, from the intense catchiness of “21 Things I Want in a Lover” to the formidable momentum of the single “Hands Clean.” But everything good about Morissette’s personal, oddly phrased songs gets lost amid the bombast of drum loops, chugging guitars and pounding rhythms. “A Man,” which appears toward the end of the album, offers a welcome stylistic shift with a dark, grinding sound that owes a strong debt to onetime Morissette tourmate Tori Amos, and thumping bass notes from Me’Shell Ndegeocello spruce up “You Owe Me Nothing in Return.” But by the time Morissette closes the album with “Utopia,” sung in a high soprano reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan’s ethereal style, the therapy-session lyrics and incessant narcissism have become stifling. Morissette badly needs to break out of her discomfort zone.

—Peter Hanson

Nine Inch Nails
And All That Could Have Been (Nothing)

What makes Nine Inch Nails fascinating is mastermind Trent Reznor’s inability to let go of material once he’s finished it. He crafts NIN tunes to within an inch of their life, making songs like “Closer,” the old “Head Like a Hole” and the relatively new, sweeping “The Great Below” memorable for both texture and drive. NIN are remarkably powerful in concert, and the live disc mixes old and new effectively, juxtaposing tunes like the unforgiving “Sin” and the highly textured “March of the Pigs” with softer songs like “The Day the World Went Away” and “Hurt.” The disc features Reznor on howl, destructo keyboard and prop guitar; guitarist Robin Finck; bassist Danny Lohner; keyboardist Charlie Clouser; and a relative newcomer, drummer Jerome Dillon. All are equally committed in their blend of destructiveness and celebration.

You could argue that Reznor is slacking by releasing a live memento of the memorable “Fragile” tour, but you can’t deny the creativity and the work that went into this effort. Or the marketing clout. And All That Could Have Been is the closing of a chapter and, one suspects, the prelude to new musical forms by one of the chief sonic architects of the past 20 years.

—Carlo Wolff

Richard Galliano & Eddy Louiss
Face to Face (Dreyfus)

With Face to Face, accordion player Richard Galliano and organist Eddy Louiss have created a stirring set of duets. Both have impressive pedigrees as players and composers, and this set, recorded over three days at a Paris studio in the spring of 2001, is a brilliant pairing. The sympathetically matched tones of their two instruments create beautifully interwoven lines that at times sound like they’re being made by a single complex, pulsing instrument. The classic Hammond sound of Louiss anchors the bottom end while Galliano’s melodies swoop in and around the organ’s middle and upper registers. The album’s 13 pieces feature elements of jazz, musette, tango, waltz and blues; Benny Golson’s classic “I Remember Clifford” intermingles naturally with a couple French songs, a Brazilian medley by Baden Powell, and a few other choice covers. Originals by both men straddle tradition and invention with subtle grace. Since the death of Astor Piazzolla, Galliano has become one of the primary composers for the accordion. His “Framboise” evokes his multinational background (he’s a Frenchman of Italian descent), while “Azul Tango” would make the late master proud.

—David Greenberger


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