Lonnie Smith Trio
Purple Haze: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix
(MusicMasters Jazz)

The first time I saw Jimi Hendrix, at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967, he was just what his legend says he is: an exploding orgasm, pulling notes and sounds from places you could not see, leading a three-piece rock band where one had never gone before. At the end of his set, he threw down his guitar and walked off-stage but the guitar kept playing, obviously still somehow under Jimi's control.

This image of Hendrix as sonic and spiritual blitzkrieg continues to inspire musicians. I've seen Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ernie Isley, and Vernon Reid come closer than anyone has a right to the magic of that night at the Fillmore. But there's another side of Hendrix -- quiet, ultrasubtle, laid-back -- that's seldom explored by his heirs. The Hendrix of "May This Be Love" or the whole "underwater" side of Electric Ladyland -- music not of white-hot lust but of afterglow. Partners nudge, grunt, and murmur, although they never fall asleep.

This is where another type of three-piece -- the jazz organ trio of Lonnie Smith -- enters the picture. They peel away the outer shell of Hendrix tunes such as "Gypsy Eyes" until they find the essence of the song. Then Smith and guitarist John Abercrombie (who never directly cops from the well of Hendrix licks) pass that essence back and forth, back and forth. This goes on for well over ten minutes per tune, until it sounds like they've discovered time capsules that Jimi himself left in the song, strands of DNA that now mutate into something new. The effect is mesmerizing, so much so that you hardly even notice until it's too late that the laid-back improvisations have built upon each other and have become the raging fire that consumes the end of the "Purple Haze/Star Spangled Banner" medley.

-- Lee Ballinger

The Mummies
Runnin' On Empty, Volume One
(Estrus)

They called themselves the Mummies and they dressed the part, wrapping themselves from head to toe in dirty white bandages. For a few years in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the San Francisco foursome was quite possibly the finest group to ever crawl from the underbelly of Sixties garage-rock punk. Vinyl purists and no friends of good fidelity or second takes, the Mummies recorded a couple of albums and a handful of singles and plundered the rarities of their three-chord forefathers -- old-schoolers like the Sonics and the Wailers as well as Brit legend Billy Childish -- and also wrote their own shamelessly, gleefully moronic rockers. By 1992 the band fell apart, with members scattering to various other combos (most notably the Phantom Surfers).

The first in a proposed series of vinyl-only explorations through the Mummies cutting-room floor, Runnin' On Empty collects seven late-Eighties demos on one side and an eight-song live set from 1991. Both sides are winners, from raucous live versions of "Come On Up" and "Stronger Than Dirt" to the bone-pounding cover of the Sixties obscurity "(They Call Me) Willie the Wild One" (cut originally by -- duh -- William the Wild One), as well as the organ-drenched creepy-crawler "The House on the Hill." If you're among the poor saps who missed the Mummies during their woefully brief lifetime, Runnin' On Empty is a fine way to meet the self-proclaimed budget-rock masters. But don't stop there: You'll also need the Mummies' stunning debut album Never Been Caught, as well as the Estrus singles compilation The Mummies Play Their Own Records. (Estrus, P.O. Box 2125, Bellingham, WA 98227)

-- John Floyd

The Del McCoury Band
The Cold Hard Facts
(Rounder)

Bill Monroe was one of the great men of American music. His passing a few months ago darkened the day of anyone who had ever been invigorated by the technical dazzle and honest emotion of bluegrass, the strain of traditional country music that Monroe created and perfected in the Forties. With the music's father gone, it is Del McCoury -- a class of '64 alum of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys -- who best projects the conviction, the know-how, and the generosity of spirit required to take listeners through the gamut of feelings to transcendence.

McCoury's high singing is distinctive, not unlike that of the recently departed John Duffey of the Seldom Scene. The timbre of McCoury's voice holds a natural melancholy; the measured intensity with which he sings on his latest album signifies the depth of his involvement with lyrics. His take on the Robert Cray cheatin' song "Smoking Gun" is scene-of-the-crime harrowing, and there's real ache behind the sad questions he poses in "Member of the Blues," a number pulled from the songbook of Fifties country star Skeets McDonald. McCoury's bid for forgiveness in the waltzing rendition of Jimmy C. Newman's "Blue Darlin'" tugs heartstrings without getting the least bit maudlin.

The virtuosic playing by the musicians gathered here is rooted in sincerity. The senior McCoury handles the guitar parts, while son Rob shines on banjo and second son Ronnie evinces his control over the mandolin. "Baltimore Johnny" is the instrumental showpiece, with fiddler Jason Carter and string bassist Mike Bub also in sharp form. For certain, the Del McCoury Band possesses a bracing sense of ensemble agreement as they proudly carry the torch for Monroe.

-- Frank-John Hadley

Vic Chesnutt
About to Choke
(Capitol)

If you're looking for the musical equivalent of Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner, look no further than Vic Chesnutt. Through a six-album career (four brilliant releases on the tiny indie label Texas Hotel, a collaboration with Widespread Panic recorded under the name Brute, and this year's tribute recording, Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, which featured unlikely artists such as Madonna and Live) this Georgia-born singer/songwriter's skewed Southern sensibilities and exquisitely viscous music have garnered a small but fervently loyal cult following. And if his latest album About to Choke represents no great leap artistically, well, he didn't need to make one.

Chesnutt's life hasn't always been a bed of roses, and when it was, he was likely pierced by the thorns. When he was eighteen, Chesnutt became paralyzed in an auto accident; he fell asleep at the wheel, drunk. Since then he's struggled with heroin addiction and doubt. And even if you didn't know these facts, one listen to his nylon-string chords and whiskey-tinged voice would clarify it.

Chesnutt writes songs of such unflinching honesty that they're almost painful, and he manages to pull it off without a drop of self-pity or heavy-handedness. On the opening track, he intones, "And I felt like a sick child/Dragged by a donkey/Through the myrtle." His metaphors are laid out like a buffet dinner: Pick and choose your sustenance. The music is deceptively simple, whether he's moving like a horse half-drowned in quicksand or simply rocking out. His vocal delivery is so simple that you can't help but be compelled to listen.

This album doesn't mark any great departure for Chesnutt, but because of his new association with Capitol, it's going to be easier to find than his others. Get it, get it now, then seek out his back catalogue. This is an artist worth hearing. As Chesnutt says so eloquently in "See You Around," the album's closing track: "And I ain't got time for niceties/Or rather I was never fond of the niceties." We didn't want to hear them anyway.

-- Brian E. Rochlin

Ric Menck
The Ballad of Ric Menck
(Summershine/Sub Pop)

Before he signed on as drummer/pretend-naif spokesman for power-pop titans Velvet Crush, lanky Ric Menck fronted and/or recorded with similarly minded late-Eighties outfits the Big Maybe (which also included Velvet Crush bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain), Choo Choo Train, and the Springfields (also with Chastain, plus Til Tuesday's Michael Hausmman and Buddy Judge), all of which issued superb singles on teeny-weeny indie labels. The Ballad of Ric Menck corrals these various 45s in one collection, kicking off with Choo Choo Train's shimmering, psych-poppy "Perfect Day" (a likable knockoff of the Beatles' "Rain") and its hooky, reverberating flip "Bicycle Song." The nine remaining cuts assemble the Springfields' sundry releases, from originals such as the acutely Byrdsian "Sunflower" (circa 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers), the chiming "She Swirls Around Me," and the looking-forward-to-V.C. "Reachin' for the Stars" to fine covers of the Hollies' wonderfully sad "Clown," Primal Scream's relentlessly sprightly "Tomorrow Ends Today," and Matthew Sweet's strummy, melancholy "Are We Gonna Be Alright?" Pop fans of the world, unite and take over! (Summershine, P.O. Box 23392, Seattle, WA 98102)

-- Michael Yockel

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