"Ragtime Cowboy Joe" is the title of one of this album's four covers, and a terser, more accurate description of Dan Hicks there's not likely to be. Because Hicks' blend of Django Reinhardt jazz, Bob Wills Western swing, and his own wry humor has always sounded "old-timey," it's not surprising that at 67 he's never sounded better. What is surprising is that both his Dylan mode ("Subterranean Homesick Blues") and his tender mode ("Song for My Father") become him as fetchingly as his spry mode ("Who Are You?").
This pop gem went unnoticed when it first appeared four years ago, perhaps because the singer Jenson most vocally resembles, Sheryl Crow, was queen of the hill. Now, with Crow relatively MIA, Jenson's uniqueness shines in sharp relief. Few have crafted melodies as simultaneously catchy and unpredictable. And while the lyrics sidestep ideology, the duet with Switchfoot's Jon Foreman ("Do You Only Love the Ones Who Look Like You") and Jenson's agreeing to appear on Fox News' Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld should have folks listening between the lines.
Now 55, the Lost in Space star and Barnes & Barnes alumnus turns in a collection of mostly acoustic and frequently gorgeous pop-rock. Like the actor he still is, Mumy the singer-songwriter not only brings various personae to life (Tom Petty in "You Know You Never Know," America in "Man of Pride") but also makes you forget that's what he's doing. It's a shame, therefore, that, were Circular a film, the gratuitous profanity in "Never Gonna Stop" and "A Deal's a Deal" would have it rated R.
The lyrics, which comprise non sequiturs of varying intelligibility ("Through your teeth, you softly speak / Lyin' deep / beneath the deep blue sea"), would seem to be a red herring. The main appeal, other than the knowledge that George Harrison's son Dhani is singing lead, is the music: electronica so beguilingly spacey that it doesn't so much stand as float on its own terms-that is, with no prerequisite knowledge of Harrison's pedigree, academic training (physics, industrial design), or extracurricular interests (Formula One auto racing).
For a band that barely existed, Toy Matinee has cast an unusually long shadow. Now, with Noble Rot's reissue of its eponymous-and only-1990 album and 1994's semi-follow-up Meanwhile, the shadow grows. Led by Patrick Leonard, a musician best known at the time for co-writing and producing hits by Madonna, and the aspiring singer-songwriter Kevin Gilbert, Toy Matinee examined subjects such as the Gulf War, Vaclav Havel, Salvador Dali, and Madonna through an ambitiously kaleidoscopic art-pop lens. But no hits materialized, and the group broke up.
Leonard, who would later work with Michael W. Smith and announce his conversion to Christianity, recruited Mr. Mister's front man Richard Page for the more mainstream-sounding Meanwhile (released under the name Third Matinee). But it's the tragic post-Matinee headlines made by Gilbert that have given the music an elegiac air: A gloomy and frustrated perfectionist, he hanged himself in 1996, a victim of apparent "autoerotic asphyxiation." He was 29.