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Bob Marley
The Complete Wailers 1967-1972 Part 1
(JAD/Koch International)

Although it's neither as comprehensive as Island's Songs of Freedom (1992) or as revelatory as Rounder's One Love (1991), JAD's triple-disc Complete Wailers collection covers a crucial period in the rich, extensive history of Bob Marley and the Wailers -- just after the trio's raw, early-Sixties ska compiled on One Love had mutated into the sauntering, groove-laden rock steady of Seventies classics such as "Soul Shake Down," "Mr. Chatterbox," and "Stop the Train." Consisting of outtakes and alternate versions, as well as all the masters issued on the original JAD label (many of which are making their stateside debut here), Complete Wailers charts the evolution of Marley's talents as both bandleader and songwriter and is the first compilation to properly present this long-ignored material.

Some of the earliest cuts here -- produced by Arnold Jenkins and Marley's long-time friend Johnny Nash -- first appeared in the United States on the wretched 1981 album Chances Are, a grave-robbing undertaking of JAD cofounder Danny Sims made up of overdubbed demos (à la the John Lennon rough mixes jazzed up a few years back by the remaining Beatles, and about as useless). Certainly the original version of "Chances Are" needed no after-the-fact frills; heard here in a skeletal alternate take, it's a chilling, moving slice of doo-wop-style balladry and one of Marley's most successful fusions of American soul and slinky Kingston bop. For pure soul-reggae weirdness, check out this set's two versions of "Give Me a Ticket," the Wailers' scintillating take on the Box Tops' blue-eyed soul hit "The Letter." And for pure soul-reggae boogie, don't miss "The Lord Will Make a Way," a convincing Memphis soul shuffle with chicken-scratch guitars, a popping bass line, and majestic horns punctuating the beat.

Despite its slew of alternate takes and dub versions, Complete Wailers doesn't play like a dry history lesson issued exclusively for archivists and fanatics. Rather, it spans the gamut of the Wailers' musical menu, from rousing statements of religious faith (among them "Feeling Alright" and the impossibly rare "Selassie Is the Chapel") to searing political commentary ("The World Is Changing," one of Wailers co-vocalist Peter Tosh's most powerful early performances) to raucous celebrations of rhythm ("Rock to the Rock," "Rocking Steady"). While Marley would later return to much of this material after signing to Island in the mid-Seventies, he seldom improved on it -- compare the taut, percolating version here of "Bend Down Low" to the relatively lackluster take from the 1974 album Natty Dread. Disc three presents the bulk of Leslie Kong-produced material assembled in 1971 on The Best of the Wailers, the first reggae album to consist of something more than previously issued singles. That it contained soon-to-be Wailers standards such as "Stop the Train," "Soul Captives," and "Soul Shake Down Party" (presented here in a terrific dub version) is a testament to the vibrant era chronicled on this essential, invaluable document.

-- John Floyd

Nick Lowe
Dig My Mood
(Demon)

In the late Seventies, when Elvis (P.) was dead and Elvis (C.) was King, Nick Lowe was a valued member of the new-wave court. Not only did he produce the first four Elvis Costello and the Attractions records, but he also manned the boards for Graham Parker, the Damned, and the Pretenders. Along the way Lowe established himself as a first-rate solo artist, with one hit ("Cruel to Be Kind") and several solid albums that demonstrated his knowing wit and his encyclopedic command of pop styles.

Lowe was always a pub rocker at heart, an artist whose roots reached deep into the earliest rock and roll -- Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and others. As he soldiered through the Eighties, marrying and divorcing neo-country star Carlene Carter, producing records for others, and releasing his own, Lowe honed his songwriting and his singing to fine points. After playing on John Hiatt's landmark Bring the Family in 1987, he seemed revitalized. Party of One (1991) sounded great, even if the songs were a bit thin, and The Impossible Bird (1994) was even better. Nick had the knack, whether he was covering old masters such as Ernest Tubb and Elvis or performing his own inspired compositions, which moved easily between rockabilly, soul, folk-rock, and straight country balladry.

Dig My Mood, Lowe's new LP, isn't as strong as Bird. But it's another supremely satisfying effort that proves that pop stars can not only age well, but improve with time. The opener, "Faithless Lover," is stately and wonderful, a contemporary torch song whose glow never wanes. Lowe's vocals, which once winked and smirked, now dip and soar. And his songwriting has kept pace. While some compositions (the country lament "Man That I've Become") have the trademark Lowe wit, others ("Lonesome Reverie," "You Inspire Me," "Freezing") deliver sincerity without sentimentality. When Lowe cuts deeper (as he does on his stark, eerie cover of ex-Wings and Joe Cocker guitarist Henry McCullough's "Failed Christian") or cuts loose (as he does on the funky, gospel-tinged original "Lead Me Not"), the album really takes off. The final track, a marvelous cover of Ivory Joe Hunter's "Cold Grey Light of Dawn," resurrects a forgotten song in all its original splendor. Whether or not this record is the equal of The Impossible Bird is moot. It's Nick's mood, and you should dig it.

-- Ben Greenman

Izzy Stradlin
117i
(Geffen)

Second solo album by ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Stradlin will no doubt wag the tail of anyone who has enjoyed Keith Richards's wheezing solo work. Double delirium for Gunner fans: Duff McKagan plays bass! Be still, my raging heart.

-- Michael Yockel

Propellerheads
Decksandrumsandrockandroll
(DreamWorks)

The music biz was abuzz for almost half a year in anticipation of Decksandrumsandrockandroll, Propellerheads' debut album. Part of the excitement surrounding this British drum and bass duo comes from its hyperactive live shows, during which Alex Gifford switches between Hammond organ and bass guitar while Will White alternates between turntables and drums. It doesn't matter that the pair's old-fashioned instruments are barely audible above the on-stage techno noise being pumped out by the drum machines and sequencers. Compared to the dull displays of button-pushing that most electronica outfits pass off as live entertainment, Propellerheads have all the energy of a kick-ass rock band.

They've captured only some of that energy on Decksandrumsandrockandroll. "Take California," Propellerheads' first British hit, opens the album with a midtempo club groove built around call-and-response sound bites. The duo likes kitschy quotes, and they use them to even better effect on "Velvet Pants," which creates a Sixties nightclub atmosphere with hokey lines delivered by young girls: "We hustled our way in/Everybody had long hair." It's an amusing technique but it gets old fast.

Propellerheads are at their best combining the spy-movie sound (horns and organs) with jungle beats (lots of high hat), as heard here on "Cominagetcha," "Spybreak!," and a version of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," the theme song from the James Bond movie of the same name. But the standout track here is "History Repeating," a delightful collaboration with jazz-pop singer Shirley Bassey. Her growling, slightly slurred delivery, which more than 30 years ago made her hit version of the theme from Goldfinger (more Bond) so memorable, lends Gifford's jazz-organ stylings some real authority.

The band's resident B-boy, White, gets shortchanged here. To date, his best moment occurred on "Props Got Mo' Skills," included on last year's Propellerheads EP. That track utilized nothing but White's virtuoso scratching and his machine-gun human beat-box riffs, resulting in a stark but wild sketch of the basic hip-hop skeleton. On the new album it's condensed into a 45-second piece of filler called "A Number of Microphones."

The Jungle Brothers appear on "You Want It Back," and De La Soul contributes some rhymes to "360i (Oh Yeah?)," but neither song is particularly interesting. For all their rapid rhythms and marvelous noises, Propellerheads, like most electronica acts, simply lack funkiness.

-- Rafer Guzman

Loston Harris
Comes Love
(N2K Encoded Music)

Michael Wolff
Portraiture, the Blues Period
(Fuel 2000 Records)

On Comes Love, twentysomething pianist-vocalist Loston Harris swoons his way through nine jazz standards. A romantic traditionalist, he creates the same candlelit mood evoked by predecessors Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole, as well as his contemporary Harry Connick, Jr. That he succeeds can in large part be attributed to the smooth, syrupy quality of his vocals. Harris massages the lyrics on his four vocal selections -- "Close Your Eyes," "Comes Love," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me," and "Shall We Dance?" -- into amorous musical embraces. His voice shows none of the crackle and tear of age, and while slight weathering might add to his appeal, his control here is solid and his higher-pitched croons vaguely recall young Sinatra (no, not Sinatra, Jr.). Three of the vocal selections feature Mark Shim on saxophone, and his sputtering tenor provides an appropriate accompaniment to Harris's reedy interpretations.

On piano Harris bounces off the capable, swinging rhythm section of David Grossman (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), laying down buoyant phrases and a smoky aura. His fluttering right-hand notes follow Grossman's slow bop lines, guiding crystal-clear melodies while throwing in frequent flourishes. Comes Love also benefits from superior recording, with the pianist's supple runs accented by a rich bass tone and prominent cymbals. The Ernest Wilkins song "Stompin' Down Broadway" is a highlight, galloping along at full speed atop Penn's double-time triplets on the ride cymbal, then slowing down for a ragtime passage by Harris, and finally reaccelerating with Harris's rapid-fire runs.

Harris started his musical career as a drummer, converting to the ivories at the urging of Ellis Marsalis, father of jazz musicians Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason; Harris went on to accompany Wynton and a host of other young lions such as Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman. His discovery of old Nat King Cole records around that time led him to add vocals to his repertoire and to develop his romantic style.

On the nine-track Portraiture, the Blues Period, pianist Michael Wolff sounds slightly more adventurous and less nimble than Harris, the mood more academic than romantic. The difference between Wolff's three original compositions and his handful of covers -- Miles Davis's "Jean Pierre," Sonny Rollins's "Sonnymoon for Two," Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," among others -- is glaring. As a composer Wolff is unafraid to throw a dissonant, unexpected chord into a musical space, or to allow melody lines to proceed in surprising directions. He gives himself a broad canvas on which to use fine musical brushstrokes while simultaneously stabbing and slashing the keys on terse harmonies.

The standards, however, lack such energy of invention. Wolff, who has played with Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Tony Williams, and Christian McBride, seems restricted by the frameworks of others, hauling out versions of "On Green Dolphin Street" and Mingus's "Porkpie Hat" that seem more obligatory than inspired. While the pianist generally takes a sharp, lyrical approach to melodies on the standards, he seems less confident about venturing into unknown territory, resulting in a stilted, jagged sound. Even when his runs do surprise, they lack the punch and passion of his originals.

Some of Wolff's problems echo those found on many other recent jazz recordings: Artists seem to feel obliged to cover reliable standards, convinced that they can put a new stamp on a classic. But did Wolff really need to record, for example, "Round Midnight," by Monk? At this point, does anyone? Wolff's version plods, and the vocals from guest Kenny Rankin are strictly standard-issue.

Wolff, competently backed by John B. Williams (bass), Roy McCurdy (drums), and Ben Rodefer (guitar, on five tracks), is an agile musician with a unique approach to melody. With any luck his future recordings will feature original compositions that, unlike the standards on Portraiture, don't paint themselves into corners. (Fuel 2000, P.O. Box 46130, Los Angeles, CA 90046)

-- Larry Getlen

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