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December 11, 1996

Beautiful Freak

John GorkaJohn Gorka, Between Five and Seven (High Street Records 1996) - Folk singer John Gorka delivers his sixth release, the aptly-titled Between Five and Seven. With able assistance from Mary Chapin-Carpenter's band, it's not surprising that the album has a country-folk sound.

Gorka grew up in steel country of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but moved to Minnesota a few years ago. Since his first release, I Know (1987), Gorka has emerged as a leading folk talent, and now spends more than 150 nights a year on the road.

Between Five and Seven was recorded in three 2-day sessions. Says Gorka, "Mary-Chapin's band was laying over in Minneapolis for a few days, so we got together and recorded. The next month I recorded for two days by myself, and then a month after that, Dean McGraw, Peter Ostroushko, and I did a 2-day session."

The steady influence of Chapin's band shows through on the album's best numbers - "Can't Make Up My Mind" and "My Invisible Gun." Both have a smooth, accessible sound, filled with backing organs ("Can't Make Up My Mind") and pedal steel ("My Invisible Gun").

I wish more of the songs on Between Five and Seven featured these rich studio arrangements. But the high points are rewarding.

Mary ChapinMary Chapin-Carpenter, A Place in the World (Columbia 1996) -- Mary Chapin is one of the smartest talents in contemporary country music: her songs cross effortlessly into pop, while also touching a common chord with both women and men. Her 1992 release, Come On Come On, produced several chart-topping singles, including "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "Passionate Kisses."

A Place in the World doesn't scale these lofty heights. Not that Mary's resting on her laurels. It's just that she set a high standard for herself. Sure, there's plenty of pleasing numbers, such as the uptempo, "Hero In Your Own Hometown," and the bluesy, "Let Me Into Your Heart." But there's no dead-bang winners, just middle-of-the-road crowd-pleasers. And that makes A Place in the World a mild disappointment.

Pancake DayVictor DeLorenzo, Pancake Day (Almo Sounds 1996) - Pancake Day is the debut solo release from Victor DeLorenzo, who manned the drums for 11 years for the legendary folk-punk trio, the Violent Femmes. Pancake Day is an amalgam of current styles, with one great single.

After his departure from the Violent Femmes in 1993, DeLorenzo (who lives in Racine, Wisconsin) toured with John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey (now members of the revamped 10,000 Maniacs) before producing the soundtrack for the film, The Paint Job, with singer/songwriter, John Wesley Harding.

The songs on Pancake Day were written during a three-and-a-half-year period, and cover a broad range of styles, ranging from the pop-oriented "Noise" to the more industrial "Daughtera" to the hip-hoppish "Gossip."

My favorite track is the smooth ballad, "Picture Her Blue," which sounds more like E than E's new album (Eels, see review below). And I guess that's my complaint with this album; it covers too much ground, and never really settles into a solid groove. But "Picture Her Blue" is a great single.

EelsEels, Beautiful Freak (DreamWorks Records 1996) - The Man Called E is back with a three-piece combo for Beautiful Freak. The album leaves behind E's more Beatle-ish and Todd Rundgren sound for a disjointed, alternative approach. And that's the whole point behind Beautiful Freak.

Eels consists of E (real name Mark Oliver Everett) on vocals and guitar, Butch Norton on drums, and Tommy Walter on bass. E's two prior solo releases (the excellent A Man Called E and the more disappointing, Broken Toy Shop) revealed E to be a master of the studio. And these talents carry over to Beautiful Freak.

Says co-producer Mike Simpson (a member of the hot production team, the Dust Brothers), "I really love the way E combines a traditional pop writing approach with the new technology and his odd, quirky arrangements. Here's a guy who could have taken these songs and done them as a standard pop record and probably could have been very successful. Instead, he was willing to put a twist on it, and try to create something a little edgier."

EelsAcknowledges E, "Our album is called Beautiful Freak because that's the thread going through most of it. It's about being fucked up and different, and half of it is looking at the down side of that. The other half, which I think is even more interesting, is the celebratory side of being a freak."

The album has a sense of coherency, yet remains unsettling. Although E is loath to link his mental health to the arc of his career, his rising fortunes seem to be coinciding with a relatively upbeat period for him. Admits E, "writing songs has been a way of working through problems [including severe depression]."

But still, the misfit remains. "I've always felt like a fish out of water my whole life. I was always into the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place. When I should have been into punk rock, I was into Lynyrd Skynyrd. I mean, I was just directionless. I think I'm sort of a product of the times...the whole couch potato generation or whatever you want to call it."

Like Beck, E seeks to weave a number of elements and themes in his songs. Beautiful Freak is a challenging pop work that points toward the future.

-- Randy Krbechek

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