"Toward the Sun"



"The Fine Art of

Self Destruction"


Elvis Costello is Jeffrey Gaines's role model. Like Costello, the Pennsylvania singer-songwriter applies a roughened, unconventional voice to sparkling Beatlesque pop. But unlike the British cult hero, Gaines isn't much of a lyricist; he too often settles for awkward cliches such as "Magical, the way you make me feel / Easy, 'cause our thing is so real." On the other hand, Gaines's vocals attain a soulfulness that Costello has always grasped at, and the American's melodies and chord changes are consistently inventive.

For the second consecutive album, Gaines has hired a former Costello producer to handle his own recording. On "Toward the Sun," it's Mitchell Froom, who helped the singer realize the psychedelic-pop potential of his 11 original songs by layering acoustic-guitar strums, sustained electric-guitar chords, repeating arpeggios and slow-motion lead guitar into dizzying harmonies. At their best, on songs such as "Life of the Living" and "Beyond the Beginning," Gaines and Froom achieve an intoxicating approximation of the Beatles' "Revolver" and "White Album."

Jay Farrar is Jesse Malin's role model. On his debut solo album, "The Fine Art of Self Destruction," the former lead singer of the New York punk band D Generation goes the alt-country route in the style of Farrar's bands Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt or Ryan Adams's band Whiskeytown. Malin's nasal baritone is a dead ringer for Farrar's -- whether whispering confidentially on the verses or wailing forlornly on the choruses -- and Adams produced "The Fine Art of Self Destruction" by framing Malin's dozen compositions in chunky, straightforward roots-rock arrangements.

Like Farrar, Malin's writing and singing are so expressive that he can create a mesmerizing mood. But, again like Farrar, that mood changes so little from song to song that the monochromatic album proves less than the sum of its parts. Malin's lyrics seem to be drawn from the best lines jotted down in his journal; as a result, isolated phrases sparkle but rarely cohere into a unified story. When they do -- as on "Wendy," "Brooklyn," "Almost Grown" and "Xmas" -- Malin hints at the considerable potential that he hasn't quite realized yet.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Jeffrey Gaines, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8122; to hear Jesse Malin, press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)