The title of the 1984 debut album by the British group Prefab Sprout, Swoon, was an ingenious deception, accurately describing the misty-morning blush of guitar, keyboards and sighing harmonies that disguised the hard roads in singer-songwriter Paddy McAloon's love stories and the spikes of torment and joy in his white-soul croon. In Britain, the Sprout's 1985 encore was called Steve McQueen, another perfect fit. The songs, McAloon's classy pleading and the rain-gray gloss of Thomas Dolby's production were, like McQueen's acting, cool and nuanced yet tough and quietly tortured at the center. The actor's estate forced the group to retitle the album for U.S. release (as Two Wheels Good). It is now Steve McQueen for good on a two-CD reissue (Legacy) that includes a disc of McAloon revisiting most of the songs in new acoustic readings that affirm the emotional fiber and seductive contours of "Appetite," "Goodbye Lucille #1" and "When Love Breaks Down." But it is the mesh of bruises and sparkle on the original album — McAloon's mining of the common, wounded beauty in Leonard Cohen, Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Webb that makes Steve McQueen a command performance.
Modern Jug-Band Music
Carolina Chocolate Drops are three young black musicians revisiting, with a joyful vengeance, black string-band and jug-band music of the Twenties and Thirties -- the dirt-floor-dance electricity of the Mississippi Sheiks and Cannon's Jug Stompers. Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind (Music Maker) is dazzling in its velocity and virtuosity, while the a cappella lament "Another Man Done Gone" and the waltz "Short Life of Trouble" ensure that you don't miss the blues that drove those pioneers to make such defiantly ecstatic music.
As Strange as 1969 Ever Got
Knight of the Blue Communion (Hux), the 1969 album by Peter Ivers' Band, is one of the most marvelously bizarre recordings ever put out by a major label, and it has lost none of its allure: the black-wind ensemble of oboe, bassoon, sax and Ivers' graveyard-blues harp; the whoops and purrs of Yolande Bavan; the nonlinear creep of the songs by Ivers (who died in 1983) and lyricist Tim Mayer. I could, with scary pretension, describe the album (now on CD) as Pierrot Lunaire, Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 song cycle, laced with psychedelic and Chess-blues voodoo. Let me say that "Cat Scratch Feve" is not Ted Nugent's tune. You'll know why right away.