CD review: Ann Magnuson, Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories

More ripe harvest from the longtime artistic partnership of singer-songwriter Ann Magnuson and songwriter-producer Kristian Hoffman, and more evidence of what can happen when talented weirdos do what they do best, completely ignoring what year or century they happen to be stuck in. Excellence abounding.

Dammit: Anyone undeef should’ve perceived by now that keysman Hoffman (Mumps, Swinging Madisons, Dave Davies, Abby Travis, et al.) possesses the let’s-call-‘em SKILLZ to ring the bells of even the most ignorant; he’s proved it repeatedly live and on record, and oughta have several Disney animated-feature soundtracks under his cravat by now. The latest treasure’s in these collabs with Magnuson.

Tarrying not, the duo commence the clobber with “Falling for an Actor” -- so instrumentally grandiose! such ironic Camembert! such exquisite melodic tension! Life’s a drama, as Magnuson, phthisic on her fainting-couch, exhales the query: “This time who will it be? Hamlet or Othello? There’s no buzz when you’re playing a well-adjusted fellow.” Not giggling yet? Wait till “Full of Fuck,” a hiccuping, bouncing renunciation of seduction that would serve as the album’s most likely airwaves intruder were it not for the obvious. The last half of the disc really pours on the hits, as the Bacharachy bopper “Just a Guy” rhymes “hydrant” with “snide rant”; the somewhat Queenly “Whatever Happened to New York” builds with architectural elegance; the zesty discotheque morsel “Old Enuf to Be Your Mom” shimmies shamelessly. By the time “Cynical Girl” rolls around with its lofty swell and tin-soldier bridge, you’d better be impressed, or I simply shan’t speak to you any longer.

All the aforementioned are aristocratic examples of Hoffman songcraft -- brilliant popsmanship adorned with harpsichords and vocal choruses, musical fingertips touching aloft in romantically charged minuet. Magnuson’s voice conveys a clarion artistic ennui throughout; she’s most human on the torch blues “Sky’s a-Cryin’” (co-written by Tom Judson), with its shimmering vibes and misty distances. The titular “ugly stories” -- spoken-word narratives of perverted college prof or dentist’s office -- are entertaining once but not likely candidates for repeat listens.

There’s a huge market for this kind of NEW intelligent adult pop, and it’s largely untapped. (Satellite radio?) If there’s an IAP start-up on the horizon, I’d embezzle my kid’s college fund for the IPO. (Greg Burk)