BY Kathy Mattea

If Mattea's previous six albums are classifiable as folk-tinged country, this one is country-tinged folk, the kind of thing Judy Collins has done for years. It is clean-sounding, vivid and full of songs that are always intriguing, if not always smart.

To get the dumbness out of the way, Don Henry's "Harley" sounds like a motorcycle commercial, and a bad one at that, telling the story of "a motorcycle mama and her man" who name their new son after their favorite brand of bike, lose him when their sidecar breaks loose and eventually meet him as a grown man at a fairgrounds. (The only emotion the song evokes is relief that the couple wasn't partial to Kawasakis.)

Mattea and producer Allen Reynolds chose better in Hugh Prestwood's "Asking Us to Dance," a swoon-worthy romantic tune: "Why don't we get caught in this moment/ Be victims of sweet circumstance/ Tonight I feel like all creation/ Is asking us to dance." The Jon Vezner-Pat Alger song "A Few Good Things Remain" and Beth Nielsen Chapman's "What Could Have Been" are uncommonly evocative too.

Mattea's version of Julie Gold's "From a Distance" (like Nanci Griffith's) also suggests a more complex interpretation of the song than Bette Midler's does—the nuance-blurring aspects of looking through the wrong end of the telescope being obviously open to varied interpretation.

Mattea sounds in strong voice and remains among the most insightful countryfolk-whatever sisters—a quality that, it turns out, asserts itself even more when she doesn't have to sing about trucks and trains. (Mercury)

Echo and the Bunnymen

In the 1980s, progressive-rock radio stations gave a major fanfare to every new release by this British band. Reverberation, however, has met a ho-hum response. Clearly the departure of lead singer-songwriter Ian McCulloch in 1989 ruffled the fur of some longtime fans who felt that the Bunnymen couldn't hop on their own.

They were wrong. Reverberation ranks with the group's best albums. New lead singer Noel Burke has a brooding voice like McCulloch's, yet he projects a bolder tone. Guitarist Will Sargeant and bass player Les Pattinson. the only original Bunnymen left, retain their trademark style. They still meld sonorous guitars and smooth harmonies to create lightly undulating rock music.

Despite the cutesy name, the Bunnymen often examine philosophical issues—truth, honor, sin, loyalty. "Gone, Gone, Gone," a lush duet, ponders the difficulty of keeping a clear head in times of change. "Flaming Red" expresses frustration at seeing the world's ills: "Oh my eyes/ For the sins I may not share/ Burn like coals inside my head/ Smoldering black and flaming red."

Take heed, you introspective types who loved the old Bunnymen. The band may be diminished by the loss of McCulloch, but only by a hare. (Sire)

Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys

Not long ago, zydeco music was virtually unknown outside the juke joints and dance halls of Louisiana's bayou country. Today, thanks to the efforts of such groups as this one, the accordion-and washboard-driven music has gained an enthusiastic audience.

Simien is one of the genre's wilder performers onstage, but much of his debut album is squandered on heavy-handed pop songs. "I'll Do It All Over Again" and "I'll Say So Long" show this band's bent for maudlin, melodramatic lyrics, while "Back in My Baby's Arms" gets smothered in an excess of guitar pyrotechnics. More successful is the haunting cover of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." done here in tribute to the late zydeco king Clifton Chenier.

The best news is that there's a healthy dose of the band's stock-in-trade—down-home, zydeco boogie played at breakneck speed. "Zydeco Zambada" and "Moi Su Pas Tracasser (I Am Not Worried)" will give newcomers to this irresistible dance music a good idea of why the Playboys have created such a stir. (Restless)—Lisa Shea

Laurel Masse

These songs are served by a woman who knows her way around a lyric line. The album veers confidently from songs with a large nod to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross ("Jumpin at the Woodside," "Oleo," "I Got the World on a String") to the boisterous "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" to the sexually charged "Lazy Afternoon": "And I know a place that's quiet/ 'Cept for daisies running riot/And no one passing by it/ Come spend this lazy afternoon/ With me."

Listen, then try to forget the full, rounded notes, the idiosyncratic voice with a hint of breathiness, a voice at the edge of its soprano reach on "Again," a cut enriched by Rich Daniels's melting tenor sax. And there is swing and real freshness in Masse's "On the Street Where You Live."

Masse, 39. a Holland, Mich., native, demonstrates diction as flawless as her taste in music. Even songs sung at flat-out speed emerge clean and sharp.

Were there nothing else to recommend it. the album could rest on Masse's husky-voiced "Tout Bas." Even those whose French is limited—and who don't recognize the Kurt Weill tune known to English speakers as "Speak Low"—will get the romantic message so urgently delivered here. (Disques Beaupres; P.O. Box 268235, Chicago, III. 60626)

John Wesley Harding

Listening to a Harding album for the first time is done in three stages. Stage one is the cynical "Who's the guy ripping off Bob Dylan?" phase. Stage two is the curious "Doesn't he sound an awful lot like Elvis Costello?" phase. Finally, you get to stage three: "Isn't this guy the greatest thing to hit music since the death of the eight-track tape?"

Think of Harding (real name: Wesley Harding Stace) as Dylan with a voice, Costello without vitriol. This Brit has a knack for folkish pop songs that touch two levels at once, with guitar hooks that make him radio-friendly and smart lyrics that are the stuff lit students write essays about.

From the bounce of "The Person You Are" to the somber shuffle of "50/50 Split," Harding doesn't try anything fancy. Just a pleasantly cheesy organ solo here, some background horns there and a bit of fresh-faced rock and roll all around. It's music that even at its saddest—the mournful, good-lover-lost tale "Driving in the Rain"—burrows right into your pleasure center.

Once the tunes open things up, Harding's words seep in. And lyrics are to him what airport lobbies are to solicitors for marginal charities: vistas of opportunity.

Among other things, Harding (his stage name is from a Dylan song) has Costello's gift for wordplay: "In the movie of your life/ They'll get some real jerk to be you" and "Tonight I'm on the town without me/ Tonight it's just me and my evil twin/ The one who slips one more drink in/ The one who slips away when I start sinking."

In the end, Harding may remind you of a lot of people, but the true testimonial to his abilities will come a few years from now. Some smart singer-songwriter will happen along, and the first thing you'll say is, "Doesn't he sound a lot like John Wesley Harding?" (Sire)

>POV

Peter Gabriel cut one of rock's best live albums (1983's Peter Gabriel Plays Live) and is a master of the video form. So you expect this tape, shot in 1987 at the Acropolis in Athens, to be special. It is. The backup band is supple—gentler songs ("Don't Give Up") sound limpid, the rockers ("Shock the Monkey") chunky. Gabriel supplements his already theatrical act with framing devices, back projection, lasers and such home movies as scenes from 1986's Amnesty International tour. If Gabriel has aged more gracefully than most rockers, it may be because, as this video proves, he is the genre's most resourceful artist. (Virgin, $19.98)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Michael Small,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • David Hiltbrand.