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For years New York club denizens knew what the rest of the blues world is beginning to find out: John Campbell is one of the most startling and passionate blues players around. His debut on Elektra Records, One Believer, featured urban nightmares such as "Tiny Coffin," about the littlest victim of a drive-by, and Robert Johnson-inspired creepshows such as "Devil in My Closet," as haunted and haunting as the original bedeviled bluesman. Campbell's follow-up, Howlin' Mercy, continues in that vein A raw-nerve vocals drenched in whisky and coated with gravel and, perhaps even more effective, stinging, expressive slide and fiery fret-shredding.

Although he pays tribute to the Delta bluesmen of old on tunes such as "When the Levee Breaks" and "Saddle My Pony," Campbell's scathing string scorch is equally informed by aggressive, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. (It's fitting that he lists both Memphis Minnie and Jimmy Page/Robert Plant as the authors of "Levee".) Campbell fuses traditional forms into a style of his own making, coupling unique guitar lines with a distinctive voice (though he's barely distinguishable from Tom Waits on "In the Hole," an outstanding track contributed by the boozy-voiced barroom poet). Also like latter-day Waits, Campbell's tunes possess an apocalyptic power fueled by percussive assault A be glad the drummer decided to take his hostility out on the skins, rather than on mankind.

But there are lighter moments on Howlin'. The autobiographical "Look What Love Can Do" has the hellish rakehell "tossing his black book to a stranger," giving up his hobo rail-ridin' ways for the woman who has transformed him. Although still touring feverishly, Campbell is now relatively settled with wife and child, effectively slaying some of the demons. But don't think for a moment the lanky guitar-skinner has gone soft. One listen to Howlin', with its rattlesnake-tail-and-coyote-bones percussion (no kidding), is enough to have you checking your closet before turning out the lights.

-- Bob Weinberg

Daniel Lanois
For the Beauty of Wynona
(Warner Bros.)

Known for his brooding aural energy and ever-present reverb, French-Canadian producer Daniel Lanois became one of the hottest names of the Eighties for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel, and his top-secret mix of layering and lushness also sculpted efforts by the Neville Brothers, Harold Budd, Robbie Robertson, and Bob Dylan. In 1989 Lanois decided to perform his own material, and his debut LP, Acadie, was a natural extension of his production jobs A subtle, roots-'n'-blues compositions steaming like a bayou morning.

For his sophomore effort, For the Beauty of Wynona, Lanois has tinkered slightly with the formula that made him, supplementing his own guitar and keyboard work with the New Orleans rhythm section of bassist/vocalist Darryl Johnson and drummer Ronald Jones. While the Crescent City battery provides a sturdy spine and the occasional spark of live-in-the-studio fire, the result is mostly pure Lanois. From the opening track, "The Messenger," Wynona (not Ryder, incidentally A she spells it with an "i" A but a small Canadian hamlet) rocks with a mythic mid-tempo grace, insinuating a hypnotic intimacy. When the Lanois sound succeeds, when the hazy blues licks and the rolling percussion lock into their groove, the result is stunning A an ear-candy Tootsie Pop with a roots center.

The problem with Lanois, of course, is that superb production can elevate less-than-superb material A as eloquent as Lanois's sound becomes, his songs sometimes border on the boring. The Gabrielesque "Still Learning How to Crawl," for instance, creeps along like the muddier work from Gabriel's recent Us, as does the precious bilingual love song "The Collection of Marie Claire." The beautifully engineered "Death of a Train" is nearly anesthetic (can anyone say Cowboy Junkies?). Sometimes, as on the short instrumental "Waiting," Lanois seems merely to be flexing. While eminently listenable, atmospheric groove exercises aren't exactly kinetic. Which isn't to say that Wynona sleepwalks. The hypnotic Afrobeats and edge-of-menace vocals in "Beatrice," for instance, overcome murky lyrics, as does the tribal rhythm kill of "Indian Red." And "The Unbreakable Chain" locks into an unbreakable melody.

For all the promise of his production, Lanois shines brightest as a songwriter when he strips his sound bare, as two remarkable compositions near the album's end attest. "Sleeping in the Devil's Bed," which first appeared in Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World, is a sturdy folk-country number underpinned by light brush percussion, and its loping piano and smooth retro vocals generate surprising power. With simple but evocative lyrics ("I think of you when I tell myself/And the fever rises high/I think of you and I get what's coming/Sleeping in the devil's bed"), the song sounds like a missing gem from the Band's past, a distant cousin of both Bob Dylan's "Man in the Long Black Coat" (which Lanois produced) and Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" (which he didn't).

After an uncharacteristic burst of eruptive, rubbery fretwork on the title song, Lanois returns to simplicity with the album's masterful closer, the frangible "Rocky World." Galvanized by a strong storytelling ethic and eloquent imagery ("I'll tell you there's something I'll never forget/The sight of you in silhouette"), "Rocky World" renders a series of piercing small-town portraits with poetic economy. And just as the mix swells behind a religious metaphor and a ponderous coda seems imminent, Lanois dissolves his song, and his album, leaving behind only the fragrance of a strummed string.

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