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Sweet Relief II -- Gravity of the Situation: Songs of Vic Chesnutt
(Columbia)

The second of what is sure to be a series, this star-studded, politically correct benefit/tribute album showcases the music of Athens-based songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Using a wheelchair as a result of a car accident, Chesnutt is a legend around Athens, worshiped by virtually the entire community, most notably the boys in R.E.M.

Sweet Relief II gives a good indication why. Chesnutt's songs are simply told stories, rich in melody and nuance. Hard to screw up, in other words. His own performance style, appropriately, straddles country and folk.

The thirteen artists here attempt more ornate covers of his compositions, with decidedly mixed results. No doubt the finest cut is turned in by Live, whose intense rendition of "Supernatural" recalls Pearl Jam's reworking of Victoria William's "Crazy Mary" for Sweet Relief I. The song begins with a soft guitar strum and singer Ed Kowalczyk's gentle croon, before building to an all-out jam. Guitars clang and buzz, Kowalczyk wails, and drums bang out like artillery rounds.

R.E.M. offers a yeoman's effort on the wonderfully droll "Sponge." Peter Buck -- a guitarist not known for power solos -- manages to wring some genuine menace out of his fret board, while Michael Stipe's brooding contralto proclaims "the world is a sponge," to a slinky backbeat. Smashing Pumpkins and Red Red Meat team up for an intriguing turn on "Sad Peter Pan." A kabuki whistle and a wash of strings give way to roaring guitars, while shimmering strokes of a high hat make time for Billy Corgan's spaced-out tenor.

Less successful is Sparklehorse's annoying interpretation of "West of Rome," which is marred by a ridiculous experimental intro that features what sounds like the whining of an electric drill. Soul Asylum's bombastic version of "When I Ran Off and Left Her" manages to bleed the song of its chief asset -- understatement.

This, actually, is true of most of the more elaborate arrangements, which lean too heavy on steel pedal and jacked-up rhythm to capture the subtlety of Chesnutt's yarns. That may be just as well. An album including Madonna (who provides ho-hum harmony for brother-in-law Joe Henry) and Hootie & the Blowfish (who help Nanci Griffith mangle the title track) is obviously not built for low-key appeal.

The blissful exception to this rule is Mary Margaret O'Hara's brave take on "Florida." It's just the singer warbling Chesnutt's hilarious lyrics, a bit of bass guitar, and the occasional saw at a violin. The song manages to capture the essence of Chesnutt, an artist, in the end, whose quirky charms may be fun to elaborate but are nearly impossible to imitate.

-- Steven Almond

Dirty Three
Horse Stories
(Touch and Go)

Following up their brilliant self-titled album from last year had to be a daunting task for Australia's Dirty Three, considering the structural limits of a guitar-drum-violin trio. Expand on that album? Forget it. Dirty Three was about as expansive as punk-based music has ever gotten, with three-way tension that built into towering melody, then exploded. What was left?

Well, a couple things, it turns out. On Horse Stories's opening cut -- "1000 Miles" -- Warren Ellis has his violin in mourning, letting it sag and moan until you feel like you're listening to the weirdest honky-tonk weeper ever recorded. On "Sue's Last Ride," Ellis starts in on a riff midsong, then widens it until it's tearing everything apart in a squawking frenzy. On the third song, "Hope," Ellis turns the bow over and inserts a few lilting moments into the squall.

But that's about it. Nothing else here is particularly new or exciting. Other than "Horse," where Ellis restrains himself and Mick Turner lays out a hypnotic guitar figure, the band doesn't create the same tension they did last time out. The slow ones ("Red," "I Knew It Would Come to This") never build to anything, and the fast one never combusts into the old snarling caterwaul. And that's disappointing because, despite the limits of their configuration, these guys have enough ideas to keep making interesting music for as long as they choose. At their best they use these limits to great advantage, conjuring a suffocating tension inside a primal, stripped-down sound. But that's all they have this time -- a sound.

-- Stephen Tignor

George Jones
I Lived to Tell It All
(MCA)

Borrowing its title from Jones's recent autobiography, this is supposed to be the uncompromising honky-tonk album the great man has been holding back. While the feeling and the instrument are intact, the material on I Lived to Tell It All is steeped in cliche. All the broken marriages and barroom evenings you could wish for are present, tied for the most part to verbal hooks so numbingly mindless it's a surprise the master doesn't break up in chortles midway through 'em. I mean, "With hundred-proof memories, you don't think and drive"? Ack.

"Honky Tonk Song" makes a joke out of the old story about Jones driving his riding mower to the liquor store after wife Tammy Wynette hid his car keys. "Billy B. Bad" is a weak slap at Nineties' hillbilly video-chic. Worse are the pathetic backing tracks on several cuts. The countrypolitan keyboards and strings on "It Ain't Gonna Worry My Mind" are more sugary than anything Billy Sherrill ever ladled on a Jones track. This is hardly a total washout, given the strength of numbers like "Back Down to Hung Up on You" and "The Lone Ranger," but those in search of Jones's greatness won't get a full dose here.

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