Cowboy Junkies

Although Michael Timmins is credited as this Canadian foursome's lone songwriter, his sister Margo caresses his lyrics with such raw, naked emotion that she sounds as if she's baring her own soul. On the group's sixth studio album, mellow Margo sings in her usual hushed soprano, and her mood is as low as ever on "Lonely Sinking Feeling" and "Now I Know." Yet, thanks to Michael's reflective lyrics, the overall feel on Lay It Down is more pensive than melancholy. The arrangements are less spare and delicate than usual, with the sting of Michael's guitar chords adding unprecedented bite to the bluesy "A Common Disaster" and the otherwise hypnotic title song.

Still, Margo remains the most addictive Junkie. Her interpretive skill hasn't been so effectively displayed since the band broke through with their plaintively beautiful 1988 cover of Lou Reed's pub rocker "Sweet Jane." This is no small feat. Even Reed might have thought he was hearing that one for the first time.(Geffen)

The Freewheelers

Instrumentation isn't destiny, but it can be identity. For the Freewheelers, a muscular tandem of organ and piano is the force that drives their swashbuckling brand of blues-rock. Dave Sobel ecstatically splashes, peals and squeals on his Hammond organ, while Chris Joyner pummels away in cascades of acoustic piano. Lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Luther Russell (grandson of Bob Russell, lyricist of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "He Ain't Heavy...He's My Brother") stands at the helm like a one-eyed pirate, shouting out rollicking melodies in a frayed Joe Cocker voice. Songs like "Mother Nature Lady" and "About Marie" epitomize the album's pitching, plunging intensity. The Freewheelers make it to port, watertight. (American Recordings)

Various Artists

Cueing up a comedy album is to confess that, yes, you are that desperate to be entertained. But here's a comedy boxed set without the shame: It's got historical merit. The four discs extend from comedy pioneers—beginning with the not particularly funny rube Cal Stewart ("Uncle Josh in a Barber Shop") in 1915—to Depression-era radio and movie stars, such as the wonderfully scabrous W.C. Fields ("The Temperance Lecture"), and to the contemporary comedy of deadpanning-for-gold Steven Wright ("Hitchhiking"). The many classic bits preserved here include Abbott & Costello's slambang "Who's on First" and George Carlin's deftly crude "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." But this collection suffers from the repetition of topics (three football bits on one disc alone) and some dud routines (David Brenner's "N.Y. N.Y.; L.A. L.A."). And there are some eye-popping omissions. No Groucho Marx? They've got to be kidding. (Rhino)

The Manhattan Rhythm Kings

We have questions, all of us fortunate enough to have heard earlier recordings of these performers with their Velcro-close harmonies and Mills Brothers-flavored interpretations of songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s. Why simply Manhattan Rhythm Kings? Isn't it about time this trio, which has played nightclubs and concert halls across the country since the early '80s, extended its sovereignty a bit beyond the Hudson River?

On this tribute album, composer Harry Warren has found sympathetic interpreters. The threesome offers a meltingly lovely version of "At Last," a sinuous "Forty-Second Street" and a buoyant rendition of "Jeepers Creepers." And please, let's not forget the impish, giddy title tribute to a certain iron-rich, leafy green vegetable: "Hooray for spinach/It took you far/Bless all the nourishment/In each candy bar.../Bless the fellow who taught you to kiss/If he taught you to kiss like this." And while we're on the subject of hoorays, hooray for these sunny, sharp arrangements. Long live the Kings. (Cabaret Records, P.O. Box 4034, Garden City, N.Y. 11531. Phone: (800) 955-ROSE)

Courtney Pine

When this 31-year-old British saxophonist comes to the U.S.A., America's best reedmen crowd his shows, so prodigious is young Pine's technique. He's a restless blender of genres, and here he merges black pop with jazz to create his best CD yet.

Until now, most jazz-hip hop encounters have kept the jazz component to a minimum, burying a few token samples of classic bebop solos under a numbing funk beat. Pine levels the playing field. As his superb quartet soars and boils, a hip-hop soundtrack subtly sneaks into the background: industrial noise, turntable-scratching, muffled grunts and chants. It's like listening to jazz on a radio with leaky reception, the hip-hoppers on the next wave band continually insinuating themselves. Sometimes they push their way to the fore, as when scratcher DJ Pogo trades lightning-fast phrases with Pine. Purists may accuse Pine of trying to buy into hip hop's trendiness, but Jazz Stories seems more sincere than that. It's an attempt to reflect the way information reaches us today: through a haze of interference. (Antilles)

>Everything but the Girl

THE WAITING GAME

Patience may be a virtue, but this is ridiculous. Not only did Everything but the Girl have to wait 12 years before scoring their first Top 10 U.S. hit with "Missing," but a year went by between the release of that single—a pumped-up dance version of a languid ballad from the British duo's 1994 Amplified Heart CD—and the start of its chart ascent last fall. Glad to have a hit at last, vocalist Tracey Thorn and musician Ben Watt, both 33, are already focusing on completing a new, more beat-driven album. "I would totally understand if we took a dip," says Watt warily. "We can't expect to sustain these kinds of giddy heights."

Do you feel resentful that it took a dance remix to break through?

Watt: Not at all. We decided when we were writing it that we didn't want to record a definitive version. We were aware that it had that four-on-the-floor type beat. Within minutes of finishing, we were on the phone trying to commission alternative versions. In a strange way it's all gone to plan. Of course, I'm surprised that it has happened in such a spectacular fashion.

What keeps your collaboration ticking?

Thorn: We have different perspectives, so it's not as though we compete for the same role. It's more complementary than that.

Watt: I have a greater interest in instrumental music and production, sitting in the studio and listening to drum tracks over and over. Tracey's interest is in vocal delivery and the song. She prefers to spend as little time in the studio as possible and has a much more instinctive approach to music. I can put in the hours, and then Tracey can say it's terrible.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Mark Lasswell,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Tony Scherman.