DWIGHT YOAKAM Hillbilly Deluxe (Reprise * * * ): Where Travis is a neo- classicist, Yoakam is an aesthetic conservative. What's the difference? Listen to the new songs by Travis and Yoakam back to back and it's clear: Yoakam is most interested in reproducing a sound - in this case, the "Bakersfield country" sound of the '50s and '60s, developed by Tommy Collins and Buck Owens - rather than emulating a style, as Travis is. Here, Yoakam sounds smart but cold, skilled but almost facile in his command of his chosen genre.
THE DESERT ROSE BAND The Desert Rose Band (MCA * * * ): More country music, this from former rock-and-roller Chris Hillman, once of the Byrds. The Byrds, of course, conducted some fine experiments in traditional country, and so Hillman's new band, featuring guitarists Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson, isn't that much of a surprise. What is is the vitality of the music - instead of sounding like a world-weary pro, Hillman makes a song such as the jaunty, clever "One Step Forward" seem like the debut of an eager newcomer.
SHELLEYAN ORPHAN Helleborine (Columbia * * * ): There's nothing worse than an English pop musician with a fondness for romantic poets - nothing, not even jazz-rockers. But this pleasurable music is something of a shock. The secret, I think, is that this duo roots its airy music and gaudy lyrics in rich English folk-music melodies and isn't afraid to make all those cellos, flutes and oboes sound like forceful rock-and-roll instruments. The best music of its kind - and don't ask what kind, because I don't know - since Fairport Convention.
PIANOSAURUS Groovy Neighborhood (Rounder * * * ): The gimmick here is that this quartet plays only toy instruments - little plastic guitars and pianos, a little cardboard drum kit. This is a sweet notion, but one that can become tiresome quickly. It's a measure of these musicians' skill that, for much of this album, you can simply appreciate the music as music, not as gimmick. After a while, though, the tinkly sounds begin to seem a tad repetitive.
* * * * Excellent
* * * Good
* * Fair