(Kill Rock Stars)

The anarchic Olympians take garage rock back to school.

The necro-retro anachronisms of the recent national garage-rock revival shouldn't undermine or be confused with the Tight Bros From Way Back When. For nearly three years now, this quintet of lager-soused, hiply lumpen Washington underbellies has done its best to turn everything stoic and overly sensitive in the Pacific Northwest sultry. Thankfully, although its records are released by Olympia's Kill Rock Stars, this band is not made up of polyester-highwater strutters. And although it is unquestionably a garage band, the members do not sport bouffant Caucasian afros.

Jared Warren, formerly of the madly loud Karp, now swings more than he singes ears. It's Warren's self-appointed duty to bring it to the people, in songs of simple, plain English, with the blues, with freedom dancing and, most of all, with a tambourine--absolutely no gimcrack or poppycock involved, just rock and roll at its purest. With Lend You A Hand, the Bros don't seem to have changed drastically since their debut, Runnin' Thru My Bones; in fact, many chord progressions remain strikingly intact from their previous songs. With a God-given mission to save rock and roll, however, the band can be forgiven some repetition. One thing, however, sets Lend apart from earlier efforts: volume. Adjusting your speakers to a safe level won't be too easy with this album. Above all, fans can rest assured that arena-guitar hooks, electrically swift licks, grumbling bass, restless drums and wiggy vocals remain. Forget garage rock's hoary glory--the Tight Bros are once and forever changing its constitution. (RB)

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: ESSENCE (Universal/Lost Highway)

One of America's greatest songwriters comes on strong with songs referring to oral sex and hard drugs. We're sold, how 'bout you?

Lucinda Williams doesn't operate on anyone's schedule but her own. True, Essence arrives only three years after her previous album, the hugely acclaimed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, rather than the almost seven years that separated that record from its predecessor. When it comes to getting this new album going, however, she's still taking her own sweet time.

Essence is frontloaded with ballads and midtempo numbers, insinuating a pensive groove before finally boiling over on the title track. Two of these early ballads distinguish themselves as some of Williams' most evocative work: "I Envy the Wind" is a timeless, lustlorn poem rendered in a tremulous but carefully controlled voice, and "Blue," an enigmatic, inscrutably personal piece, earns the right to share its name with the title song of Joni Mitchell's greatest album.

From its first notes, "Essence" screams all time great rock song, the kind that's hard not to sing along with, fist in the air. The song's imagery celebrates two of rock's favorite vices--hard drugs and oral sex--but suggests that its author's ultimate peccadillo is a torrid affair with the English language.

Car Wheels, with its driving acoustic/
electric mix, was the apotheosis of the roots-rock album, so this new record's sound is somewhat surprising by contrast. Clean and genre-neutral, it's the perfect vehicle to carry Williams boldly beyond the borders of Americana. And if any songwriter in recent memory has deserved a wider audience, it's this woman. Essence is frank, powerful, confident and beautiful--in a word, essential. (JR)

Lucinda Williams plays Monday at Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-5555 ext. 8811. Jim Lauderdale opens. 9 pm. $22.


Ambient electronics whisk forlorn desert blues into a black night sky.

The dusty shudder and dry crackle of these acoustic strums, snakeskin drums and ambient hums will undoubtedly get Calla slotted into the "desert rock" niche that's so chic these days. Sucks to be them. Because Calla's music, while it's stark as a sun-bleached skull in Death Valley, doesn't ooze the contrived moods and affectations of some current indie kid who just discovered Neil Young and Godspeed You Black Emperor! Not only did the trio's members actually grow up in Texas, the ghost of some genuine hurt lurks in these shadows.

This is noctural listening: Inky black skies and heavy clouds of minimal, minor-key chords haunt the atmosphere with sadness. Vocals crack and whisper in tales seductive, secretive and bleeding, sepia memories of "you inside my arms, inside my hands, paralyzing every sense I ever had." Gently sputtering distortion twists into serpentine forms that wind across sparse electronic drones so organic they seem reborn every time you listen to the disc. And then the slow crescendos rise like whirling UFOs come to take us away. Until the next song beams us right back in the thick of it all. Or you reach the end of the album and press play again--as you may well want to do. Calla soaks into your bones like arsenic, potent and quietly lethal. (JG)


The Portlander goes Waitsian.

First impressions of a Kelly Joe Phelps disc are always a challenge. Everyone knows you have to live with a KJP song/disc/performance, let it sink in like a beer stain on your favorite old blue shirt. Only then can you read its effect and cull some sort of meaning from the third-person tales he tells. Phelps, like his friend Greg Brown, writes essentially about "losers." But they're livers, as well, trying hard to outrun memories of the mistakes they've made. In other words, they're ordinary lost souls like his listeners. Maybe that's why they're so damn spooky--because "Taylor John," "Clementine" or "Tommy" could be you, me or the folks sitting next to us on the bus as we slurp our morning coffee.

Sky Like a Broken Clock was recorded the way Phelps' mentors in the Piedmont and Mississippi Delta schools laid down their spectral slices of life: one mic, one take. This time around, though, Phelps accepted help from Larry Taylor and Billy Conway on upright bass and trap drums (with Tom West on organ, occasionally). Phelps had gone as far as he could, short of folk imitation, with the solo-acoustic approach. Yet he's also wise to keep the interference to a minimum, with his partners offering the faintest of saloon-wise ambience.

"Sally Ruby" and "Gold Tooth" are Waits-worthy, with all the salt-in-the-wounds, jockey-full-o'-bourbon swagger of Tom's best. Phelps even does the cigarette falsetto to the backbeat of Conway's gallop and West's wheezing organ. He's also acquired Waits' lyrical affinity for drunk-tank wit. For fans of the sparse Kelly Joe, "Beggar's Oil" and "Tommy" echo the plaintive ache of his first two Ryko releases.

But to single out individual tunes misses the point. Phelps' output has always been about the long story, and the sum of the parts of his musical journal is more than a series of day-in-the-life musings. It's a melancholy montage for a way of life. (BS)

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