Bob Telson and Little Village "An Ant Alone (Songs From the Warrior Ant)" Gramavision Records

OK, you take huge ant puppets, loosely based on 18th Century Japanese bunraku puppet theater, and have them act out an epic poem about love and death, from a renegade ant's perspective, to a musical narrative that mixes Brazilian carnival music, American gospel vocals, Nigerian juju guitar lines and a few other disparate source points.

Sound a bit contrived? In most hands it doubtless would be, but coming from Bob Telson, the music from the stage production "The Warrior Ant" is a beautiful, thrilling work. It's a worthy successor to the equally unlikely "The Gospel at Colonus," Telson and lyricist Lee Breuer's (also the wordsmith here) 1983 recasting of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" as a black gospel sermon. The cast album of that production, by the way, could rank as the "Pet Sounds" of the '80s in terms of musical depth, human insight and timeless beauty. One of "Gospel's" revelations was the voice of Sam Butler, an unconscionably unknown singer with a voice that sounds like a cross between Teddy Pendergrass and Bobby Womack, except even more nimble and soulful. Butler also handles the lead vocals in this outfit (an entirely different Little Village, by the way, than the John Hiatt/Nick Lowe group of the same name), and if there's anyone who can make you care about an ant's thoughts, it's he. Insect poetry is something few two-legged artists have attempted to conjecture. The words Breuer gives them have their alien, ground-level observations--"All parts of the earth smell of juices"--but largely depict a species with the same spiritual questions and longings as humans. Breuer's ant questions of love and death are more mingled, though, because when a drone mates with a queen, it typically dies. "The Glow of the Likeness" is a soft hymn to midair mating, while "O Shadow" holds post-coital ponderings: "O lover, oh mystery, You are desire's impossibility." Butler's haunting vocal on that number is followed by a shrill whistle, as the music cascades into a carnival street parade of affirmation on "I Am." As multifaceted as the music and lyrics on this album are, they are never obtuse. There is an emotional directness and a passion that run through nearly every number. They overflow with Butler's soulful extemporaneous vocal excursions on the title track and "In the Pavilion."

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