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Morphine
Yes
(Rykodisc)

This is one of those albums you respect much more than you like. You know -- the kind you listen to over and over in an attempt to let it grow on you, before slipping it quietly into the CD rack where it will remain for quite some time, looking appropriately fashionable for guests but getting very little actual use.

I suppose the letdown was inevitable. The trio's last release, Cure for Pain, was simply miraculous, a luscious collection that shunned the standard guitar wail in favor of dreamy sax riffs, crisp rhythms, and the subtlest of pop melodies.

Honey White is full of the jazzy pretensions that Cure so deftly sidestepped. Dana Colley's saxophone work has, if anything, become more intricate. He's certainly been given rein to layer horn tracks. But most of his song lines are nebulous and dull to the ear, like listening to a very hip game-show theme that is -- upon consideration -- still just a game-show theme. And where bassist-singer Mark Sandman once sketched haunting scenes in three minutes, he now sounds like that sod from the Gap commercial, reciting college poetry and lame journal entries.

Jazz purists will likely applaud the band's zag away from pop. Then again, when's the last time a jazz purist threw a decent party?

By Steven Almond

Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble
Music for the Native Americans
(Capitol)

It's an ironic fact that for all our fascination with American music and its evolution during this century -- specifically jazz, country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll -- most of us remain dreadfully ignorant about the music belonging to this nation's original inhabitants, the American Indians. Rock, the medium most responsible for introducing other influences into popular music, has come up short on this count; its tally on feeding Native American sounds into the mainstream offers a pretty pitiful track record.

With that in mind, it's no small commercial risk that Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and guiding force behind the Band, decided to dedicate his third solo album to the music of America's native people. Then again Robertson is part Mohawk, and he spent several summers on the reservation where his mother lived. And, equally important, his music has always been in touch with tradition and Americana; one need only listen to Music From Big Pink or The Band to appreciate Robertson's perspective.

On Native Americans Robertson makes music with that same spirit and sensibility. On such tracks as "It Is a Good Day to Die" and "Words of Fire, Deeds of Blood," narratives that evoke death and defeat, there's still a soothing serenity that speaks of honor rather than hate. Although by sharing the spotlight with Native American singers and musicians, Robertson risks taking a back seat on his own album, his world-weary vocals and textured guitar and keyboards help give the album its plaintive pulse. He's credited with two of the set's most accessible songs, the sweetly soothing "Golden Feather" and "Skinwalker," a sinewy ballad full of mystery and mystique. More importantly, Robertson's willingness to salute this heritage has resulted in an effort that deserves to be heard.

By Lee "Train" Zimmerman

Trio da Paz
Black Orpheus
(Kokopelli)

Lush Brazilian jazz that reminds you the Girl From Ipanema was not only cool and lovely, she had a great bottom.

By Bob Weinberg

Soulhat
Good to Be Gone
(Epic)

Debilitating power chord dada from a band whose previous release augured better.

By Todd Anthony

Syl Johnson
Back in the Game
(Delmark)

Soul fans know Hi Records as the home of Al Green in the Seventies. Die-hards, when pressed, might come up with Ann Peebles and Otis Clay as two more Hi artists during the Memphis imprint's heyday. But the name Syl Johnson is a relative obscurity, recognized, if at all, for his 1976 hit record of the Rev. Green's "Take Me to the River." More's the pity, judging by his excellent new release onDelmark.

Backed by the original Hi rhythm section -- the Hodges brothers with Howard Grimes on drums -- Johnson projects an enormous voice, reminiscent of Green (he, too, sings through his nose), but more earthy. Johnson makes no concessions here; Back in the Game sounds as if it could have been waxed back in the early to mid Seventies, with fatback bottom (Leroy Hodges), trilling organ fills (Charles and Fred Hodges), punching horns, and of course, the scratching rhythms of Teenie Hodges, in addition to those laid down by Johnson himself.

Johnson's vocals are pure soul, his excesses -- three-minute endings to six-minute songs, where the singer just wails -- actually providing guilty pleasures. Everything here is excellent, but if you need a few highlights when listening at Blockbuster, cue up the skunk-blood funky title track, the pleading ballad "Please Don't Give Up on Me," the urban vignette "Ghetto Woman" (not the B.B. King song), or the laid-back musing "Anyway the Wind Blows" A all damn catchy, all affecting. A one-time neighbor of Magic Sam (Maghett), Johnson also serves up some exuberant blues reads on "Driving Wheel" and "All of Your Love."

Syl Johnson is definitely back in the game.
By Bob Weinberg

Floyd McDaniel and the Blues Swingers
Let Your Hair Down!
(Delmark Records)

"A raggedy ride beats a dressed up walk, any time of the day," sings Floyd McDaniel on the opening track of this swanky, bluesy, jazzy record, recalling the likes of T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown in front of their own brassy conglomerations. Like those men, McDaniel combines the raucous bump of a ride in the rumble seat with the velvet smooth transmission of a well-tuned Rolls. And though he's not as flashy a picker as T-Bone or Gate, McDaniel manages some jumpin' chords, eliciting a beautiful tone from his Gibson.

McDaniel, who will be 80 years old in July and hits the mainstage of the Chicago Blues Fest in June, displays all the panache and showmanship he collected playing the Cotton Club when Harlem was heaven, jumping with Jelly Holt and the Four Blazes, putting on impromptu jams with Joe Williams and Willie Dixon in the back car of the El, and backing everyone from Sam Cooke to a version of the Ink Spots. McDaniel's most obvious influences are Charlie Christian (who persuaded him to go electric back in the early Forties) and T-Bone Walker, whose classic song lends this disc its title (though you might know it as "T-Bone Shuffle"). The other Walker tune here, "Blue Mood," provides the gemstone of the seventeen-song collection, McDaniel perfectly capturing a melancholy moonlit feel.

Backed by the Blues Swingers, a great horn band led by tenor saxophonist Dave Clark, McDaniel runs the gamut from swellegant big band arrangements (Andy Razof's clever "Christopher Columbus") to down and dirty blues (McDaniel's own "West Side Baby"), the latter proving to be his true love. It's this combination of slick sophistication and down-home warmth that makes McDaniel's blues as satisfying as a plate of grits at the Ritz.

By Bob Weinberg

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