Tuck And Roll: The Music of Steven Mackey
New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas Cond.

What kind of music might you expect from a 45-year-old composer who, in the late '60s, spent six- to eight-hour stretches providing electric guitar accompaniment for his older brothers during their extended LSD explorations? Include in your fantasies that, after an international upbringing, he eventually settled in northern California at the time when the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, Jimi Hendrix et al. were the voice of the land.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who has championed Steven Mackey's music for years, describes it as "wacky." Mackey not only embraces the appellation, but expands its definition to include weird, quirky and offbeat composition that features humorous material with a "mercurial continuity." If those words don't throw a curveball at your sensibilities, Mackey's music most certainly will.

This music is young and brash, the journey filled with adventure, the orchestral color as startlingly seductive as all those colors and patterns that come upon you when you drop. And it's a good trip. "Tuck and Roll," an electric guitar concerto featuring Mackey as soloist, is all over the place, its influences extending from classic car upholstery to Latin music. "Eating Greens," a large symphonic work, contains seven movements with such titles as (Lethargical) Reformation, Whim and Rigor (Homage to Henri Matisse), and Ouija (wee-gee) Baby. In between comes "Lost and Found," a short, spicy toccata and fanfare.

This music is perfect for MTT's youthful New World Symphony. Tilson Thomas, whose San Francisco Symphony Mavericks Festival once offered duo improvisations with the Grateful Dead's Vince Welnick scented with marijuana smoke coming from the second tier, established the New World Symphony in Miami Beach in 1987 as a training academy for gifted graduates of distinguished music schools. Their playing suggests that they have come of age. Hats off to the recording and mixing engineers responsible for this offbeat excursion.

- Jason Serinus

All This Sounds Gas
Preston School of Industry

Preston School of Industry is the first solo project from Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs), ex-guitarist and second vocalist for Pavement. Any fan and every critic will tell you that Pavement -- last decade's indie-rock pacesetter -- was all about Stephen Malkmus. He was the inscrutable, high-cheekboned frontman. He wrote his lyrics last minute, in the studio, and the New Yorker analyzed them.

Scott's songs, on the other hand, were clumsy and earnest. His voice was genuine but average and his hooks were obvious. When one of his songs did appear on a Pavement album, between the Malk's brilliance, he sounded like an ambitious amateur. All This Sounds Gas lacks any potentially embarrassing high-Malkmus marks and Scott benefits from the change of context. With a whole album to himself, he proves to be a subtle and endearing songwriter.

Lyrically, he ekes great emotion out of nonsense: "driving the whalebones home/ eighteen hours ago/ lots of water in tow" fills an ambling melody with sweet exhaustion. ATSG appropriates the lazy tunefulness of '80s college rock--Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure, REM--but abandons the era's affectations. (Remember Robert Smith's pained gloom? Michael Stipe's dumb platitudes?) And, while ATSG's two heavier and more distorted songs fall flat ("Encyclopedic Knowledge of" and "History of the River"), the remaining 10 use apt orchestration and dynamic arrangements to make the style sound new. Notable examples are the less-is-more staccato of "Doping for Gold" and the more-is-more flugelhorn on "Solitaire."

One might reasonably argue that Scott doesn't sing like a pop star because he can't; he lacks the charisma. But one might also argue, just as reasonably, that good songs don't need iconic singing; they can sing themselves. For both arguments, ATSG is compelling evidence.

-Peter Jacoby

Truck Driver's Boogie: Big Rig Hits Vol. 1
Various Artists
Country Music Foundation/Diesel Only Records

To quote the intimidating singer/songwriter Bobby Braddock, Truck Driver's Boogie is a double-clutchin', scale-jumpin', mile-making, tail-gatin', cop-dodgin', line-crossin', wind-jammin', late-runnin', possum-squashin', tourist-hatin', smoke-smellin', fist-fightin', gear-bustin' sort of an album, made up of the very best of long haul songs from '39 to '69.

The collection commemorates the Steinbeckian life of the American trucker -- rolling over long weary highways, thinking about the next pretty roadside waitress and hot cuppa joe. It's no surprise that country and western is the style of choice for these lonely, hard-running songs that are as much a part of blue-collar American culture as apple pie and Saturday night dances. Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" has been covered by so many artists it doesn't even really belong to him anymore, and the legendary Jimmy Martin had one of his biggest hits with "Widow Maker."

"Truck Driving Man" by Terry Fell & the Fellers features amazing performances on harp and fiddle and Johnny Horton's rollicking "I'm Coming Home" is the epitome of rockabilly. Kay Adams, whose fetching voice has almost been forgotten, earned her biggest hit with the pro-feminist "Little Pink Mack," about a ballsy little girl who "cut her teeth on a set of Spicer gears." Joe Cannonball Lewis' "Truck Driver's Night Run Blues" showcases his gutsy voices and a beautiful bit of fiddling, bass beats and guitar pickin' by a long-forgotten studio band.

The record closes with Red Simpson's mournful "Roll, Truck, Roll." Between Red's soulful, echoing voice, pensive melodies, contemplative dialogue and weary guitar work, you can't help but get as lonesome as the solitary driver, trying his best to get home in the rain and wind. It's an eloquent portrait of the weary highwayman, doggin' it on down the road, with only his old truck to keep him company.

- Kristen Sherwood



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