So In-Cline-D

MANDY BARNETT I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire)

Let's belabor the obvious: I've Got a Right to Cry, Mandy Barnett's second album, sounds like a long-lost Patsy Cline record. The reasons for this aren't mysterious. Cline's producer, Owen Bradley, lent his signature "countrypolitan" stamp to four songs before he died, leaving brother Harold and nephew Bobby to decipher his handwritten notes on the remaining eight tracks. Barnett, a 23-year-old Tennessean, has been singing Cline songs in public for nearly half her life, beginning at age 12, when she made her Grand Ole Opry debut with "Crazy," and culminating in a two-season stint portraying the legend in the stage musical Always ... Patsy Cline. On paper, these facts aren't especially interesting. After all, didn't k.d. lang already claim to be the reincarnation of Cline? Didn't she convince Bradley to produce her album Shadowland more than 10 years ago? If Barnett is going to rip someone off, shouldn't she at least pick a fresh subject?

That discussions of Barnett must hinge on this tiresome originality question is unfair but inevitable. When it comes to art, we are all dumb Romantics: We demand that our artists make it new, surprise us, do something strange, even ugly -- just as long as it slakes our thirst for novelty. Barnett, whose record is both undeniably beautiful and blatantly derivative, doesn't seem to care whether people dismiss her as a retro curiosity. In a world where lemmings one-up lemmings in the mad race to distinguish themselves as unique, this attitude makes her seem, paradoxically, original.

Such convoluted wordplay doesn't matter when she opens her mouth, however. Barnett has a luscious, plangent voice, bright as a bell and dark as a cello; it's sweet, certainly, but the slightest hint of a rasp keeps it from cloying. Like lang and other halfway decent Cline disciples, Barnett has the requisite Big Voice and dramatic flair -- the broken catch at the end of a phrase, the bitter chuckle, the little sob that seems to rise unbidden from the back of the throat -- but she never indulges in lang's campy excesses. Barnett is also a versatile singer, able to shift fluidly from the brassy honky-tonk of Porter Wagoner's "Trademark" to the soaring Western-swing strains of "Ever True Evermore" to the torchy balladry of "Mistakes." She doesn't so much perform as inhabit every one of the excellent songs she's chosen to cover (none, by the way, from Cline's catalog). Barnett not only has a great voice, she has the great taste necessary to make proper use of it, a rarer but no less essential quality.

-- René Spencer Saller

TOM WAITS
Mule Variations (Epitaph)

Last year Othar Turner sat in his shack, getting warm by his stove with a visitor and telling stories of Senatobia, Miss. Turner, a great cane-fife player, is a storyteller whose mind turns from sex to picnics to dances to mules. He laughed wickedly when he spun a long parable about "learnin'" the beasts.

In American folklore the mule passes through all kinds of variations: archetype of burden, endurance, playfulness and poverty, the mule is a comic go-between for boss and worker, master and slave. Sometimes the mules talk; sometimes their silence is the sad, absurd blues of life.

Tom Waits' music is full of mules: losers who don't take shit, stubborn fools who buck blindly down the road or through the mire. His latest album, Mule Variations, begins with the strutting howl of "Big in Japan," Waits' scarified voice lashing out, "I got the style but not the grace/I got the clothes but not the face"; the band kicks like a barnyard gone berserk. He fashions B-movie paranoia around a nameless fellow who assembles some nightmare contraption with a table saw and "enough formaldehyde to choke a horse." "What's he building in there?" the narrator seethes. Confronted with these chewed-and-spat sounds of trumpet, optigon, chumbus, dousengoni and turntable samples, the listener may want to know the same thing: "What the hell is Waits building in there?"

The blues: rebuilding them out of junk nobody wants, out of lives no one loves. Waits dares you to dance with them anyway. He doesn't sentimentalize the sounds and stories of the underclass; still, you wouldn't mistake him for a realist. His outcasts hold a "Filipino box spring hog" cookout in an alley and look up at their God and opine, "Come down off that cross -- we could use the wood." He gets into their -- and our -- cheap, filthy, wonderful dreams: His voice will moan, as if vomiting the words, "I've got the whole damn nation on their knees," and his lovers, named Zenora Bariella and Coriander Pyle, will sire a freaky kid without a body, but that's OK; "women go crazy/for (his) big blue eye."

Waits' blues are funny -- and sumptuously lyrical. Not since Rain Dogs has he offered so many moving ballads: "Hold On," a conjunto-laced hymn to hope; "Georgia Lee," a lament for a forgotten murdered child, with its unbearable refrain, "Why wasn't God watching?"; and "Pony," the finest hobo lullaby he's ever written:

I lived on nothin'
but dreams and train smoke
Somehow my watch and chain got lost
I wish I was home in Evelyn's kitchen
with old Gyp curled around my feet

As powerful as Waits' clashing Beefheart collages may be, these small, sparsely lit songs of haunted love and homesickness burrow deep into the heart, make their tramp's camp there, remind you that shared burdens -- shared through banjo, Dobro, pump organ, piano and a voice coming from the deep dark of the soul -- are about as human as human can be.

-- Roy Kasten

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