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Albita
Una Mujer Como Yo
(Crescent Moon/Epic)

Albita Rodriguez used to open her local club shows by joking that she would give a three-part performance: Cuban music, followed by Cuban music, wrapping it up with Cuban music. The singer's allegiance to the classic Cuban sound made for good shtick, but it also resulted in some fine musical moments. Unfortunately, Albita has gradually strayed from her role as keeper of the Cuban flame to that of Caribbean chameleon. Her third release on Emilio Estefan's Crescent Moon Label, Una Mujer Como Yo, offers a shrill pastiche of merengue, salsa, cumbia, vallenato, Cuban jazz riffs and even, God help us, rap.

From the opening title track -- a blaring merengue -- through carnavalesque chants ("Ta' Bueno Ya"), high-speed polkaesque vallenato ("El Amor Llego"), and a boisterous New Year's Eve cheer ("Ano Nuevo, Vida Nueva"), this is a relentlessly upbeat party album. The full sound, heavy on grinding percussion and punchy brass, is typical of an Estefan product. As executive producer, he enlisted a high-profile crew, led by composer/arranger Kike Santander and including singer/composer Roberto Blades (Ruben's brother). Some of the numbers -- particularly "Me Derrito" and "Tanta Lucha Pa' Que" -- are catchy, but hardly innovative. Despite the different styles, there's a tired homogeneity to the whole production. The album makes only perfunctory use of the considerable talent in Albita's band; Viviana Pintado's piano tumbao on "Ta' Bueno Ya" or Julia Sierra's tres solo on "Tocame con un Beso" are among the few small instrumental blessings. Overall, the music is just fine as background bar noise, particularly in bars prone to tipsy conga lines. And the sound should prove hectic -- and mindless -- enough to get some play on Latin Top 40 radio. (Which, when it comes down to it, was probably the goal of all involved.)

The real problem with the album is not the music. It's Albita, who's as badly suited to this material as Joan Baez would be to Spice Girls songs. Screaming over the din, Albita teeters uncomfortably at the top of her range with a delivery that's about as nuanced as a Weedwacker's wail. Albita is a singer-songwriter, and when she performs her own poetic compositions, true emotion fuels her gutsy contralto. But just two of the tracks are her own, and of those, only "Tocame" recalls the lyricism of her past efforts.

Well-meaning critics of Albita's recent work have pointed out that she is simply not a singer who records well. Not true. Although her live showmanship may be her biggest appeal, her early albums, like 1988's Habra Musica Guajira, beautifully captured her deft phrasing on spare Cuban country odes and danceable, though not frenetic, son.

It's never pleasant to witness an identity crisis, let alone watch someone fumble to build a career on one. On her first stateside album, the drum machine-heavy No Se Parece a Nada, Albita posed as a Latin Marlene Dietrich. For last year's Dicen Que, spin doctor Estefan posited the singer as a champagne-sipping chanteuse, but it was a scattered effort, meandering from syrupy ballads to shrieking rumbas. This latest version of Albita -- as dancehall queen -- is enough to give anyone a bad case of Cuban nostalgia.

-- Judy Cantor

Various Artists
Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida

(Arhoolie)

Although most of the music on Sacred Steel was cut in the mid-Nineties, the roots of this fascinating collection date back to the prewar gospel of the legendary street singer Blind Willie Johnson, whose gorgeous slide-guitar work and sandpaper vocals connected him to the pioneers of Delta blues. Recorded at various churches throughout Florida, the twenty songs here -- primal, passionate, often crude -- offer a much-needed antidote to the glossy dreck of most contemporary testifiers (e.g., Kirk Franklin, the Winans bunch) and highlight an overlooked chapter in the deep, rich history of gospel.

Between the raw testimonials of renowned guitarist Willie Eason and the dazzling but tasteful work of young lion Glenn Lee, Sacred Steel documents the full capabilities of the steel guitar in a genre that's most often defined by stomping rhythm sections and organ-dominated riffs. The Deerfield Beach-raised Eston "Sonny" Treadway dominates the set with material from two sessions, one featuring him leading a taut trio through some evocative, blues-laced instrumentals, the other with his slinky leads underpinning the soaring vocals of Fayette Coney and Chief Overseer Bishop N.A. Manning. Eason, the elder statesman of the disc, first recorded in the Forties; his three cuts here -- especially his spectacular 1996 rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" -- retain the gritty power and heavenly conviction of his early work. Even more amazing is the frantic, fiery work of Fort Pierce's Aubrey Ghent, who roars through "Praise Music" like a freight train barreling toward the Promised Land. As on the best tracks of this invaluable set, Ghent's work obliterates preconceived notions of what gospel is and isn't and points toward the music's continued growth and development.

-- John Floyd

Steve Earle
El Corazon
(Warner)

When the country-music establishment turned its back on Steve Earle, a reformed junkie and unreformed loudmouth, Steve Earle turned his back on the country-music establishment. For that reason and many others, you'll in all likelihood never hear selections from this recording on C&W radio -- and that's a pisser, because the album showcases everything that's right about American roots music. The lead track, "Christmas in Washington," sounds like the kind of ballad that was once John Prine's trademark, but the words are pure Earle: As he watches politicians running in place like gerbils, he recounts his own failings and pines for the return of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King -- those with the nerve to demand something better from their leaders. That's followed by "Taneytown," a remarkable narrative about murder, lynching, and the impossibility of justice that's powered by a Neil Young riff. The other ten songs are as strong or stronger than the material on I Feel Alright, Earle's wonderful 1996 return to the major-label wars.

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