Kara's Flowers
The Fourth World
(Reprise)


Kara's Flowers wish they were The Beatles.

A lot of us wish we were The Beatles.

But most of us don't cut our hair like it was 1965, and fewer still make an album celebrating the mid-'60s Merseybeat sound that The Beatles blasted from London to the rest of the world. While the guitar crunch of "Soap Disco" is heavier than anything the Fab Four ever did, there's still a backwards looking harmony thing happening there.

Slower tracks like "Future Kid" and "Myself" work the guitar riff to its best, non-distorted advantage, and "Oliver" sports a sing-song pop vibe that is hard to come by these days (and even sports an ascending Beatles-y "ah-ah-ah"). It's here that you can really hear the influence of producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, The Muffs) and mixer Jerry Finn (who produced last year's Buddy Holly-meets-Green Day band Fastball, and this year's Coward). Cavallo and Finn have specialized in producing '90s newcomers with a hard-edged take on a three-chord oldies sound. Kara's Flowers have the crunch down; the harmonies are sweet, and the acoustic guitar and strings of "To Her, With Love" is one of the finest homages to Revolver-era Beatles I've heard.

 


Teenage Fanclub
Songs from Northern Britain
(Creation/Columbia)


Despite critical raves, I’ve never been able to get excited about the music of Teenage Fanclub.

Until now.

I popped the Fanclub’s sixth album, Songs From Northern Britain into the CD player a couple weeks ago expecting a ho-hum album of jangle rock. What I heard instead was the best album that The Byrds and Big Star never got together to record. With tambourines and glockenspiels and chimey guitars and big, bouyant harmonies that you just don’t find in modern rock, this album is a warm pillow of sound that you’ll yearn to immerse yourself in.

From the wistful romance of “Your Love Is The Place That I Come From” to the full-blown jangle sway of “Start Again” to the bells and Byrds guitars of the gorgeous “Ain’t That Enough,” Songs From Northern Britain is a festival of lithe guitar songcraft and rich, tight-knit vocals. One song flows smoothly into the next in a comforting fashion — nothing is too hot or too cold here...it’s all just right. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

Julia Fordham
East West
(Virgin Records America)


It's been nine years since British singer-songwriter Julia Fordham first unveiled her smokily intimate pipes to the world on her self-titled Virgin debut. That 1988 album included one of the last decade's most overlooked gems — the African rhythms of "Happily Ever After," along with other, quieter pleasures. In 1989, Fordham released Porcelain; still her strongest album overall, it portrayed an artist of rare depth, emotion and romance. Swept and Falling Forward followed, each becoming progressively more produced, sometimes burying the subtle grace of Fordham's delicate songwriting in the process, though the latter did include some of her most radio-friendly tracks.

East West returns Fordham in a way to the beginning, placing song ahead of style. Michael Brook, whose experience in bringing Jane Siberry's personal song portraits to aural life, serves Fordham well as East West's producer. Concentrating on Fordham's full, deeply emotive voice and acoustic guitar, Brook's production doesn't allow a host of background singers and instrumentalists to overpower the charm of Fordham's gentle lyrics. Not that there aren't background players. Members of The Pogues, The Blue Nile and Jackson Browne's band all contribute, as does Fordham's close friend, singer/songwriter Judith Owen. But it's the tracks that leave Fordham naked, front, center and nearly alone, that shine the brightest.

On "More Than I Can Bear," Owen's supportive piano underscores Fordham's bittersweet spin on the heartrending emotion in a friend's new relationship with her own last love:

"now she's lying in my place
with the right to kiss my favorite face
now she's curled up in my chair
your fingers in her hair
it's more than I can bear."

A thematic followup to "More Than I Can Bear," the bluesy guitar beat of "Wishing You Well" sets Fordham free to belt with uncharacteristic abandon as she tries to move beyond a ruined love:

"I fumble on, the days are long
I'm doing my best at
wishing you, wishing you
wishing you well."

But Fordham pens her best line of the album on the opener, "Killing Me Slowly," as, against a gentle tapestry of bongo percussion and strumming guitar she croons:

"your love's killing me slowly
killing me one day at a time
killing me slowly
It's the sweetest suicide."

Fordham strides through more styles than usual on East West, releasing the hint of a cajun accordion vibe on "I Can Tell You Anything," and a straight guitar pop shimmer on "My Last Goodbye." The disc's catchiest moment comes in its title track. "East West" finds Fordham again connecting well with an exotic mix of percussion, but abandoning guitar in favor of an echoing loop of quietly galloping piano. A song of celebration, it stands as a sister to "Happily Ever After," and as one of the strongest moments in Fordham's lush canon.

But as high as Fordham's voice can fly, so low can she fall. Sometimes her jazzy, folky lounge songwriting simply fails to live up to the promise of her voice. Songs like "Stay," "Magic" and "I Want To Call You Baby" just lie there, limp.
Disinterested.
Boring.

It's worth it to sift through them, however. Because when Fordham's really on, the purity of her voice and emotion will give you chills.

 

Miscellaneous


Oldies Collections: Rhino Records has released two box sets over the past month. Ray Charles Genius & Soul, the 50th Anniversary Collection celebrates Charles' five decades of recording on five CDs. The set includes 102 tracks remastered for better sound quality from the original tapes as well as an 80-page booklet of photos and liner notes. Folk singer Phil Ochs also gets the box set treatment from Rhino. Farewells and Fantasies: The Phil Ochs Collection is a three-CD set with 53 tracks from 11 albums and includes four previously unreleased tracks. The folk troubadour was counted a friend by luminaries like Bob Dylan and John Lennon and worked as an active opponent of the war in Vietnam. By the mid-'70s however, his vocal chords were shot and he was drinking heavily. He hanged himself in 1976.