March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Loey Nelson

Gone are the days when Milwaukee was famous only for its smelt run, the breweries, cheese and the fact that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar found the city so unhip he demanded to be traded from the Bucks.

Now the town can boast of its annual, polycultural Summerfest fair, its esteemed art museum, the fact that Abdul-Jabbar has retired so who cares about him anymore anyway, and this insinuating, smart, dry-voiced young singer. Nelson, 27, has an austere vocal quality reminiscent of Edie Brickell, and some of Nelson’s songs—”Black Highway,” “Night Sky,” “Railroad Track”—reflect the same kind of detached attitude that Brickell wields so effectively. If there were a prairie rock school of pop music, both of them would fit right in.

Nelson may have the more aggressive sense of humor, though. This debut album includes a rare cover of the theme from the old Sidney Poitier movie To Sir, with Love. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t know that Poitier, teaching a class of teen semidelinquents in London, insisted that they call him Sir, the song doesn’t make much sense, but it seems appealingly quaint in any case.

The only other one of the album’s 12 songs Nelson didn’t write is the whimsical “Only the Shadows Know,” in which composers Doc Pomus and Dr. John play around with the old radio character the Shadow and his slogan, “The Shadow knows.”

(Oddity buffs may also want to note that this album, like Christine Lavin’s current album, Attainable Love, includes a song called “Venus Kissed the Moon,” but they’re different songs, though both smack of inspiration by a 1988 astronomical coincidence in which Venus and the moon appeared close together in the night sky.)

But then Nelson herself wrote “Gypsy Rose,” which alludes to both the striptease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee and the musical version of her life, Gypsy. Is Wisconsin ready for the Hip Singer That Made Milwaukee Famous? (Warner Bros.)

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