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Max Eider
Hotel Figueroa (Vinyl Japan)

Max Eider spent the heart of the ’80s as a member of the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, lending his classy guitar stylings to, and writing and singing, some of the standout tracks on nearly two dozen albums, EPs, singles and compilations. After five years of nonstop road and studio work, though, Eider and key co-conspirators Pat Fish and Owen Jones decided that they’d rather kill each other than work together further, and the original JBC self-immolated on the pyre of alcohol-fueled rock & roll dysfunction. While Fish continued on under the Jazz Butcher moniker well into the ’90s, Eider issued a solo album in 1987, then popped up on a couple of records by onetime Jazz Butcher bassist David J (also of Love and Rockets and Bauhaus).

Otherwise, though, the early ’90s were a period of radio silence from the man Jazz Butcher aficionados (and Fish himself) often referred to longingly as “the talented one.” Fortunately, time heals some wounds, and Fish, Eider and Jones regrouped just before the dawn of the new millennium to issue the live Glorious and Idiotic (2000) and the studio Rotten Soul (2001), both on Vinyl Japan—who also asked Eider if he’d like to follow up his solo masterpiece, The Best Kisser in the World (which sells for a mint online these days), with another record of his own, seeing as his new songs on Rotten Soul had been so well-received.

Hotel Figueroa picks up right where the brilliant Best Kisser left off, with 10 killer jazz-pop cuts featuring Eider’s distinctive Gretsch Double Anniversary (a guitar that simply bleeds emotion) and his reedy and equally emotional vocals. And lyrics: Eider’s one of the world’s most dyspeptic, yet insightful, chroniclers of the human experience, vis-à-vis men and women and love and hate and life and death and booze and lust and (did I mention?) love. Need a sample? How ’bout this one, from “Her Life:” “I could have been pretty if I hadn’t got so drawn/I could have made someone happy if I wasn’t quite, not quite so forlorn/Or maybe if I’d not been born.” Kinda puts those “My woman done shot my dog down at the crossroads” blues numbers to shame, doesn’t it?

Hotel Figueroa offers a refreshingly entertaining slice of pure songcraft, lovingly recorded and respectfully performed by Eider, Jones and bassist/producer Steve Valentine, with guest spots by (among others) Fish and David J. And that love and respect goes a long way and means a whole lot: While the languorous Hotel Figueroa may appeal to the post-Combustible Edison tiki-lounge-ennui set, it’s wholly lacking in the sorts of aren’t-we-clever self-referential shtick that defines most martini circles these days. And it’s a better record for it, a true work of art, a worthy distillation of a talented and underappreciated man’s very best work.

—J. Eric Smith

Teenage Fanclub
Howdy! (Thirsty Ear)

In 1991, Spin magazine voted Teenage Fanclub’s definitive opus, Bandwagonesque, album of the year. This tidbit wouldn’t be worth a mention in this space, except to note that the CD that it edged out, Nirvana’s Nevermind, has since assumed the proportions of a cultural touchstone. So suffice it to say that the sun-bleached harmonies, ringing anthems and crunching open chords of Scotland’s Fannies once teetered on the brink of U.S. popularity. But something darker was brewing on the horizon.

Far from the ragings on Mount Olympus, however, the Fanclub toiled away in a world where melodic kings such as Big Star, the Byrds and Brian Wilson still mattered, turning out one ear-pleasing album after another throughout the ’90s. And just as their vision survived the post-Nirvana fallout, so too did the U.K. group’s goose-bumpy melodies endure the sneering hooliganism and vapid art-pop of the Oasis-and-Blur-led Brit-pop. Which brings us to the new millennium and Howdy!

This album, which has been out for well over a year abroad, finds the Fannies releasing the string on their helium-infused pop, allowing it to soar into even airier regions. The guitars are alarmingly cut back in the mix, and everything surrenders to sweet hook and harmony. “I Need Direction” sets the tone, all yearning vocal harmonies replete with background “Ba-Ba-Ba-Bas.” This is not an album for the cynical—and maybe the Fanclub have their collective tongue somewhere near their cheek—but, quite simply, it sounds real good. Howdy! represents salvation in the same way that the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” can throw cracks of light through the most turgid cloud cover. So if you’re still interested in hope-filled tunes that can make you feel real good, this is Zoloft for the ear.

—Erik Hage

Various Artists
This is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks (Rykodisc)
Give the People What We Want: Songs of the Kinks (Sub Pop)

These two albums of Kinks covers are honorable and worthy projects: “’Til the End of the Day” appears on This Is Where I Belong, and “Who Will Be the Next in Line” is on Give the People What We Want, but other than that, both sets eschew the early guitar-crunching hits. On both discs, Ray Davies’ subtler English-infused portraiture is shown to be quite universal indeed.

Where I Belong is a model of smart direction and production. For example, Cracker didn’t reinvent “Victoria”; their cut is just an excellent matching of a song and a band. Outside of Lambchop’s version of “Art Lover,” there are no radical recastings here, and even that group arrived at their arrangement by natural means rather than imposing something that didn’t belong. Two numbers, Bebel Gilberto’s “No Return” and Tim O’Brien’s “Muswell Hillbilly,” actually delve further than the Kinks original versions into the character that Davies was drawing from when he wrote them.

Give the People is the more free-ranging of the two discs. While just as respectful as the other disc, it features numerous artists seeing how far they can push their tunes without tipping them over. They pretty much succeed, lapsing into embarrassment only when not having the vocal identity consistently nailed down. There are some brilliant song choices, rendered with honesty and verve, among them the Pinkos’ punkish take on “Brainwashed” and the Model Rockets’ emotionally regal “Ring the Bells.”

—David Greenberger

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Capitol)

For many in the Woodstock generation, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 landmark album Will the Circle Be Unbroken was their introduction to the music of Appalachia. And for some of the older artists on the record, who had had their signature hits in the 1930s and ’40s, the album marked the first time they were recorded with modern studio technology. That the project took place at all was a small miracle: Bill Monroe refused to record with the long-haired Dirt Band, and Roy Acuff was mistrustful of them until he heard some tracks in the studio and realized that they really could play like the old-timers. Earl Scruggs persuaded many of the others to take part in the recording. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, the album that could be called the original O Brother, Where Art Thou? is back in a digitally remastered, two-CD, 42-track bonanza of plain singing and fancy picking. Highlights of album—which features the Dirt Band joined by stellar guests including Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, Norman Blake and others—include Mother Maybelle Carter’s plaintive vocals on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” Doc Watson’s sparkling flatpicking on “Black Mountain Rag,” and Merle Travis’ fingerpicking showpiece “Cannonball Rag.”

—Glenn Weiser

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