April 17, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Come to Where I'm From

Current Status
In Season
Joseph Arthur
Realworld, Virgin
We gave it an A-

In an era when humble singer-songwriters with a flair for oldfangled song have become little more than cult figures, Joseph Arthur somehow wrangled himself a major-label deal — with Peter Gabriel’s eclectic world-music company Real World — and the result is Come to Where I’m From, his second album. Like any self-respecting (or self-disrespecting?) troubadour, Arthur primarily dwells on failed affairs and dismantled hopes, and he does it in a parched drone that makes him sound as if he barely had enough energy to hoist open the recording-studio door.

Thanks to that crackly delivery, a line like ”Oh darling since you’ve been away from me/I know how the pins feel in the bowling alley,” from ”Ashes Everywhere,” isn’t nearly as corny as it reads on the page. The songs adhere to the beautiful-loser template established by Leonard Cohen, to which Arthur adds bumpier, near-hip-hop rhythms and desolate-angel sentiments like ”Now Jesus he came down here just to die for all my sins/I need him to come back here and die for me again.”

Luckily, producer T-Bone Burnett (best known these days for his work with the Wallflowers) doesn’t bathe Arthur in embalmed roots pop. ”Come to Where I’m From” is as tastefully ravaged as its lyrics, a scorched landscape of murky atmospherics, unshaven guitars, and — surprise — delicately affecting melodies. (A few tracks, like ”Exhausted,” in which he grows weary just THINKING, rock with engaging raggedness.) The uplifting ”Chemical” finds Arthur openly admitting to any number of excesses, narcotic and otherwise, and he sets these admissions to a scruffy pop tune with a blossoming chorus — a pretty neat trick.

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