Low Pressure Systems

SOMETIMES, AS A critic, I feel like a TV weather girl, some kind of quack meteorologist hired to tell people which way I think the wind blows. On the good days, there are monsoons to point sticks at, the kind of storm that rips trees in two and changes lives forever. It's that kind of theatrical destruction, alongside the beauty of first snows and rainbows, that can drag me out of bed in the morning. Heck, even the crappiest blast of icy sleet is fun to complain about. But the most boring forecast in the world is "partly cloudy."

So what's there to say about a pretty good rock & roll record? We're talking honest, interesting, fully adequate works of art by people you respect and admire. Case in point: two new efforts by former members of Hurricane Pixies: Frank Black and Kim Deal. Remember that band's brand of crunchy noise and slightly goofy gall? The cries of "Gigantic"? Consider their continuing influence on what they called "subbacultcha" by recalling Kurt Cobain's admission that he considered the '90s deluge "Smells Like Teen Spirit" only a "Pixies rip-off" (which I never quite got but whatever, nevermind).

On his third solo album The Cult of Ray, Black's voice can remind you of Roy Orbison and Richard Hell in the course of one breath. But he's really turned into They Might Be Giants' older brother, a role he played on tour with them in '94: Opening for that group as solo troubadour, Black grabbed a new guitar after he finished each song, slinging the previous one--still strapped on--across his back so that by the end of his set, wearing something like five or six instruments on his person, he resembled the weird creature he sings about on Ray, "crawling through the grass of your little abode."

Black's songs, all of them drenched in his rainy-day surf sound, lurch back and forth between the universal--"Don't Want To Hurt You (Every Single Time)"--and cryptic, incomprehensible narratives like the one about the last stand of a man named Sazeb Andleeb. And who could hate an album whose last sung word is "Andleeb"? It's just that not-hating and kinda-liking can wear you down.

Black's title cut is a lovely little tribute to Martian Chronicler Ray Bradbury, and it's the most provocative: It balances the spacy with the earthward-bound, combining the one-brain-to-another communion novelists share with their ideal readers and the sheer pleasure of pure sound that comes from seductive repetitions of the phrase "melting rock into metal."

Melting rock into muddle, Kim Deal's side project, the Amps (the sometimes boring, occasionally stunning Breeders are still on hold while Deal's twin sister Kelley, fresh outta rehab, is in town working with her new band, Solid State) comes off as unplanned and slung-together--which somehow doesn't translate into "spontaneous." Pacer's title cut revolves around the telling sentiment "you were just passing by"; Deal, as it were, just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Deal and the Dayton chums who join her could have recorded the entire album in the back of some little bar for all I know: Listen hard and you practically smell the cigarettes across a smoky room. Aside from the fun little garage-band romp of "Tipp City" or Deal's raspy screams on "Empty Glasses," the entire enterprise reminds me of one of those politely pleasant indie bands from Boise or Lawrence you would have enjoyed and forgotten back in '89 before things got out of hand. Which is fine; I simply expect a few more thunderbolts from the woman who gave us "Cannonball"'s pure joy.

Deal's old comrade Black gripes in "Punk Rock City," a song about the dubious rise of underground music, "When this shit got started it was never gonna stop." Which, sitting here waiting for the next hard rain to fall, is somehow a less inspiring slogan than "Rock & roll will never die."

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