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Utah Phillips and Ani Difranco
The Past Didn't Go Anywhere
(Righteous Babe)

On "Bridges," Utah Phillips intones: "I have a friend, a good folksinger and song collector, who comes and listens to my shows and says, 'You always sing about the past. You can't live in the past, you know.' I say to him, 'I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. The past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now.'"

Musical nostalgia is usually not just personal preference, but an attack on the present. (Just talk to anyone who hates rap.) Utah Phillips, despite being quite old and a practitioner of that most nostalgia-drenched genre, folk music, insists that we use the past to help us in the present. And, although he's a folksinger, Phillips admits folk music can be, well, boring ("'Blow ye winds, hi-ho,' hell -- that's boring").

To bring the past up to date and avoid boredom, Phillips gave Ani Difranco tapes of many of his acoustic shows from the past twenty years and agreed to let her take them into a studio and mess with them. Mess with them she did, not only cut-and-pasting his stories but adding guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum loops. Difranco, who has made a name for herself as a punk-folk stylist, here reveals hidden talents as a rock, funk, and hip-hop producer and player. The result is as much a musical stew as Beck or the Beastie Boys, while lyrically we wind up with "songs" about Utah Phillips hearing Marian Anderson sing while he's AWOL in Korea or just going for a drive with his daughter. Yet so expert is Difranco's presentation of Phillips's voice and guitar that this still works as a folk record. Not only is it never, ever boring, it opens us as much to the possibilities of that venerable style on its own terms as it does to the wonders of studio technology in the hands of a true artist. (Righteous Babe, P.O. Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY 14205)

-- Lee Ballinger

Kevin Mahogany
Kevin Mahogany
(Warner Bros.)

Jazz fans already know Kevin Mahogany is one of the greatest singers in the world. With any luck, his major-label debut will alert the rock, soul, and blues audiences to that fact as well. Mahogany's trio of earlier albums (on the Enja label) were hard-core jazz affairs that were, in the tradition of grand vocalists like Billy Eckstine and Mel Torme, filled with impeccable versions of jazz and pop standards by everyone from Charlie Parker to Rodgers and Hart.

Kevin Mahogany, though, expands the old-school conception of the Great American Songbook to include rock and soul, and the additions push Mahogany to his greatest moments yet. Mixing jazz phrasing with church testifying, he tackles Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," James Carr's "The Dark End of the Street," Stevie Wonder's "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," and Al Kooper's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," filling each with subtle touches and dynamics that post-new-jack soul has long lacked -- and with an emotionalism that's been missing from too much jazz for decades. His performance of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is as gut-wrenching as anything released this year.

The disc also expands jazz's musical vocabulary, just a bit. The arrangements are clearly jazz, but they're never afraid to get down and bluesy when it helps the song, and Mahogany's ballsy scatting on his own "Still Swingin'" is driven by funky-drummer beats. Without compromising his art in the least, Mahogany has fashioned a rock-and-soul disc that jazz hounds should dig, and a jazz album that blues and soul fans should be able to rock their butts off to.

-- David Cantwell

Iris DeMent
The Way I Should
(Warner Bros.)

Since her 1992 debut, Iris DeMent's voice has made its own argument for its importance. Forged in the midst of a musical, church-devoted family from the hills of Eastern Arkansas, her singing comes from a place separate from today's world. It seems paradoxical -- fragile and yet unbreakable. It soars high and open-ended, physically searching its way through the emotions of each word. It's a voice so earnest, clear, and soulful that its very existence makes the range of today's country (and pop in general) seem ridiculously narrow and exclusive.

But her difference extends far beyond style. Consider the subject matter of the personal songs here, most of which resemble the songs from her first two albums: "When My Morning Comes Around" dreams of the feelings of a day of resurrection, while "Keep Me God" contemplates an ambivalent relationship with God. Both songs are more spiritually true and moving than the many trite religious confections bouncing around the airwaves this year. Even more out of step with what's hip, and all the more arresting for it, are the songs about joy and peace, "This Kind of Happy" and "Walkin' Home."

A big part of DeMent's appeal is her unwavering plainspokenness. The classic country of "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight" justifies this quality with the refrain, "I wouldn't say I'm any stronger than the rest/But no matter what you say, you ain't gonna hurt me any less." On this, her third album, she turns her unflinching perspective from personal experience to the outside world, and the effect is devastating.

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