Red House Painters Retrospective (4AD) Retrospective may seem like a cash-in, and to a degree it is. The "unreleased tracks" that this collection touts number


Red House Painters, Macy Gray, and more

Red House Painters Retrospective (4AD) Retrospective may seem like a cash-in, and to a degree it is. The "unreleased tracks" that this collection touts number only two out of 24. Not to mention that 4AD notoriously severed ties with the band in 1996 and fans have been waiting for a new album that has been sitting in limbo. A disc of greatest hits, another disc of live tracks and demos, and presto! 4AD fills the void, unless you're one of the die-hards who memorized the hits and bootlegged the live stuff a long time ago. Industry cynicism aside, Retrospective works nicely on many levels. Frontman/lyricist Mark Kozelek claims his big influence was not Nick Drake (whom he had never heard until after the first RHP album) but folks like John Denver and Cat Stevens. To put it another way, if Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, Kozelek sits in the city by the water dissecting his ticker to the point of embarrassing self-discovery. Dark folk-rock has never sounded so lush, like a haunted house with immaculate wallpaper. For every time his heart's been thrown in the dumpster, Kozelek comes up singing. "Katy Song," "Mistress," and even a subdued and irony-free cover of Kiss' "Shock Me" pinpoint pain and desire with melodic ease. Disc two repeats a few of the first disc's tracks, but the cathartic blowout of Kozelek's solo take on "Japanese to English" should be required listening for those who need an extra dose of morose.—Jason Josephes

Donald Rubinstein and Zony Mash A Man Without Love (Blue Horse) Rubinstein is a poet, storyteller, composer, and singer, a bearded Beatnik railing against the phoniness of LA to the extent that you wonder why he's still hanging out there. Maybe because it provides such good material, like "Rubber Cot," his hilarious screed against surgically enhanced women. Rubinstein sings like an animal, his emotions untrammeled by technique, his grizzled voice cracking with half-ironical desperation or descending to a conversational murmur. His previous CD was a series of duets with Bill Frisell, and he shares with the guitarist a love of all-American idioms; his tunes have an instantly iconic quality, rooted in blues changes. "Fire Whirl" is a lovely bit of two-beat C&W ("You're a sky/of green blue/diamonds fallin'/down upon the earth") with some convincing country pickin' from the guitar wild man Timothy Young, while "River of Love" soars on gospel hopes with Andy Roth and Keith Lowe doing their best Sly and Robbie routine and Robin Holcomb adding some inspired harmony. Producer and bandleader Wayne Horvitz has given the arrangements a suitably loose understatement—save for the final cut, which turns into a flabby 20-minute jam—and adds some occasional out-jazz colors.—Mark D. Fefer

War Grooves & Messages: the Greatest Hits of War (Avenue) War emerged from East LA in the late 1960s with a unique mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms, ghetto funk, street politics, and the kind of haunting soul harmonies that are usually associated with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. As the title suggests, disc one of this two-CD set is a well-paced greatest hits album, which includes the summer cruising anthem "Low Rider," the hippie fantasy "Spill the Wine," and the song that launched a thousand awkward conversations, "Why Can't We Be Friends." Unfortunately, the perfection of the first disc is precisely what dooms the second, "bonus remix" CD. Speaking as someone who loves hip-hop, I have to say that hip-hop remixes of War songs are completely and totally pointless. Adding a hip-hop or techno beat obscures the original rhythms, which were the source of the songs' power in the first place. More importantly, the remixes discard the historical context that is a major part of the songs' appeal (El Barrio 1971, low riders, brown power, really big afros and really skinny joints, etc.) in favor of a bland digital aesthetic (Redmond 1999, minivans, Initiative 200, blond eyebrows, and St. John's wort) that you can easily achieve by watching any local news broadcast. My advice: make a margarita, put the first disc in the stereo, and use the second as a coaster.—Joe Schloss

Macy Gray On How Life Is (Clean Slate/Epic) The debut album from Los Angeles-by-way-of-Ohio songstress Macy Gray dips into an FM band's worth of music styles, but ultimately it's about one thing: that voice. At first listen, Gray sounds like a Billie Holiday for your premillennium blues, a slickly produced R&B chanteuse with the heart and soul of a Delta-born blueswoman. But the more she sings, the more she defines her own craggy voice, at times coyly girlish, at others knowingly wise. Although only 29, Gray sings as though she's done a lot of livin', implanting lines like "He wanna fight and make me feel like nothing/Never lovin' but we're always fuckin'" with the ache of one who's suffered such blows. Gray sings of love and addiction, sex and abuse, faith and despair, sometimes with wonderful wordplay—the gospel-toned "I Can't Wait to Meetchu" is about an impending date with her maker, not her taker. Not every track's a winner, however. "I've Committed Murder," about a woman who kills her boyfriend's stingy boss, suffers from a silly plot, and organ lines and backing vocals that overwhelm Gray's own soulful vocals. Producer Andrew Slater, who's worked with Fiona Apple and the Wallflowers, is almost too good, his numerous studio tricks occasionally elbowing Gray's vocals out of the spotlight and into the shadows. What makes this amalgam something more than soundtrack fodder for the next David Lynch film is the arms-wide-open embrace of Gray's melodies (the chorus to the powerful ballad "I Try" is irresistible) and that voice. It may not be for everyone, but no one will soon forget it.—Lydia Vanderloo

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