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Gary Lucas is best known as one of the most distinctive guitarists of the last few decades, a player with the perfect combination of taste, prodigious technique and wild imagination. Outside of his work with Jeff Buckley and Captain Beefheart, he’s made a series of always fascinating, often stunning LPs that veer from solo experimentalism to interpretations of Chinese pop tunes to avant-garde rock, usually accompanied on the latter by his free-floating ensemble Gods and Monsters. The Ordeal of Civility stands out in his catalog, however, due to being an out-and-out pop record. Lucas has flirted with pop on most of the Gods and Monsters disks, of course, but this is the first album on which he’s carried a vision of succinct, catchy songs all the way through. “Chime On,” “Luvzsweetsong” and “Climb the Highest Mountain” traverse similar melodic/rhythmic terrain as Talking Heads, quirky but still attached to singalong choruses. (The Heads’ Jerry Harrison acts as producer.) The horn-drenched “Peep Show Bible,” the grungy “Depression” and the rumbling “Swamp T’ing” dig into bluesier grooves, without becoming anything close to classic rock. The plangent instrumental “Lazy Flowers,” the waltz-time “Jedwabne” and the fingerpicked “Lady of Shalott” are acid folk gems that sound beamed in from another era, though their lovely traditionalist melodies smooth over any retro tagging. There are a couple of six-string showcases, naturally, but the acoustic “Whirlygig” and the funky “Hot and Cold Everything” use Lucas’ skill to propel the tunes forward, rather than show off his technique. The guitarist instead centers the arrangements around his plainspoken talksinging, letting his ax act almost purely as support. The Ordeal of Civility is Lucas’ most instantly appealing, easily accessible album, which, in the context of his long, creative career, makes it paradoxically the most radical LP he’s ever done.
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