Fricke's Picks: New CDs From Gary Lucas, Soft Machine and Jeremy Spencer

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Gary Lucas is one of the best and most original guitarists in America - a master synthesist of deep blues, avant-rock and madrigal-like folk who was a vital member of Captain Beefheart's late-period Magic Bands and an early musical partner of the late Jeff Buckley. Lucas is also a songwriter of established invention - he co-wrote Buckley's signature songs "Grace" and "Mojo Pin" - and his latest album, Coming Clean (Mighty Quinn), made with his band Gods and Monsters, is an action-packed integration of his gifts. It is also a compelling argument for greater recognition. Lucas revisits "Mojo Pin" - appending an explosive Television-style coda - as well as some originals from previous releases, singing "Coming Clean" and "Follow" with effective want and menace, in a near-whispered growl somewhere between Leonard Cohen and a romantic Beefheart. Lucas continues to show great taste in other voices. In the runaway blues "One Man's Meat," he skids on electric slide guitar beside David Johansen's blues-from-a bottle bark. But regardless of who sings, Coming Clean showcases the composer's instinct in Lucas' instrumental prowess. He plays astounding guitar throughout, but always for the sake of the song.

Jeremy Spencer was the second guitarist to quit the original Fleetwood Mac for virtual seclusion - in 1971, a year after Peter Green. Spencer bolted to join a Christian sect and has made few records since. Precious Little (Blind Pig) is his first studio release in nearly thirty years. But the slippery fire of his slide work in the Mac is in full blaze here. Spencer's life in God is evident in the original songs, but the album is an ecumenical treat because he conducts these services in the spirit of his blues father, Elmore James, with the earthy warmth of Spencer's last Mac album, the wonderful Kiln House.

British improv-rock pioneers Soft Machine are in very different primes on Grides and Middle Earth Masters (both Cuneiform), newly rescued live tapes made three years and worlds apart. Grides is from a 1970 show, comes with a DVD of a '71 telecast and catches a four-man Machine with saxophonist Elton Dean pursuing the jazz-rock headway of '70's Third with feral intensity. Middle Earth Masters is rare stage evidence of the '67-'68 trio with bassist Kevin Ayers. These are acid-dance-party field recordings - in other words, very rough. (Forget about vocals.) But at maximum throb, in "Hope for Happiness" and "Why Are We Sleeping?," Ayers' bass, Mike Ratledge's organ and Robert Wyatt's drums explode together in a crude and truly psychedelic magnificence.

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