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What's left, then? Well, the production is impeccable, and some of the half-sketched ideas are interesting ("Making a Noise," "In the Blood," and especially "Take Your Partner by the Hand," a bizarre collaboration with Howie B that crosses Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" with Tom Waits's Franks Wild Years). But in the end I can recommend this album only -- brace yourself for a politically incorrect pun -- with reservations.

-- Ben Greenman

Various Artists
Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute
(Alligator)

Theodore Roosevelt "Hound Dog" Taylor was among the greatest bluesmen to emerge in the early Seventies, an acolyte of Elmore James who played slide guitar like a demon, sang like hellhounds were snapping at his ass, and led one of Chicago's toughest Southern-fried trios (with guitarist Brewer Phillips and minimalist drum genius Ted Harvey). Born in 1915 in Natchez, Mississippi, Taylor began working in Chicago's South Side dives in the mid-Fifties, recording a pair of small-label singles and toiling in obscurity until Alligator Records issued his debut longplayer (also the label's maiden release) in 1971. Taylor died four years later, leaving behind two other albums for Alligator (a posthumous collection of outtakes was also released by the label in 1982) that rank among the finest blues discs of the past twenty years.

A Tribute is a much-belated homage to Taylor's legacy that arrives just as his seemingly anachronistic but timeless style is enjoying a renaissance via Mississippi moaners such as R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford. Fittingly, the disc is a suitably raucous, ragged hats-off that stands apart from nearly every other album in Alligator's overproduced catalogue. And like the greatest tribute albums -- from Shanachie's fete of Curtis Mayfield (People Get Ready) to For the Love of Harry: Everybody Loves Nilsson -- you get fine performances from worthy artists (in this case Sonny Landreth, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Luther Allison) and surprisingly good ones from the most unlikely sources (among them Alligator's Dave Hole and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, whose careers thus far have been less than distinguished). Hell, even George Thorogood is bearable here.

Because Taylor's sound was built around his lacerating slide guitar, and because his group the Houserockers always lived up to its name, A Tribute logically focuses on Hound Dog's hardest rockers: "Give Me Back My Wig" (a sterling version by the late Allison); "Taylor's Rock" (an assaultive instrumental by south Louisiana bottleneck master Landreth); "She's Gone" (a hypnotic dirge from Taylor's first album done here by Michael Hill's Blues Mob); and "Take Five" (Cub Koda wailing alongside former Houserockers Phillips and Harvey). A Tribute's finest moment, however, arrives courtesy of Elvin Bishop, who back in the Sixties used to sit in on occasion with the Houserockers. His take of Taylor's "Let's Get Funky" is both funky and funny, capturing the essence of Hound Dog's artistry and personality almost as well as the man's own uniformly stunning oeuvre, which you should check out either before or after you sample the abundant riches found on A Tribute.

-- John Floyd

Dan Bern
Fifty Eggs
(Work)

With the release of his self-titled debut last year, Dan Bern earned immediate status as a critic's darling, a songwriter with a sensibility and nasal twang that called to mind a young Bob Dylan. His follow-up offering is sure to infuriate many of those same critics while drawing others even deeper in his thrall. The record, produced by fellow musical cult leader Ani DiFranco, is, by turns, brilliant, angry, self-indulgent, and gorgeous.

In contrast to his first disc, which trod over relatively familiar folk-rock territory, Fifty Eggs eagerly seeks anti-commercial extremes in both its dizzying musical diversity and its provocative lyrics. This is evident from the opening track, a chugging anthem called "Tiger Woods," whose first refrain goes: "I got big balls/Big old balls/Big as grapefruit/Big as pumpkins." Ahem. What saves lines such as these from sinking to the level of juvenilia is that Bern is driving at some big ideas. Namely, the allures and excesses of macho confidence. His dark, reverberating "Missing Link" offers his unorthodox theory on human evolution. "Aliens came down," he sings, "and fucked the monkeys." Look around -- it's hard to argue.

Simply keeping up with Bern's shifting moods is intoxicating. "Oh Sister" conveys its tender insight with guitar and voice alone, while "One Dance" delivers lovesick agitation with a shot of wiry, palpitating punk. The sublime Cole Porter-like waltz "Everybody's Baby" is propelled by a tinkling organ and mournful gusts of harmonica. "Suzanne" sounds as much like Buddy Holly as Buddy Holly ever did. Bern makes good use of his backing players, who include DiFranco (background vocals, guitar) and her regular drummer (Andy Stochansky) and bassist (ex-Gang of Four member Sara Lee).

Bern is a determinedly topical songwriter, and at times his efforts at cultural cheek wind up sounding obnoxious. "Chick Singers," a frenetic paean to his female counterparts, comes off as simultaneously cloying and condescending. And the half-baked idealism of "Cure for AIDS" does its topic an unintended disservice.

But even at the bottom of his game, Bern is never boring. Indeed, he has the rare gift of a true artist -- to follow his instincts, even if they occasionally lead him into the deep rough. More often Bern's outrageous talent prevails, and in these moments his songs deliver the same wallop as the mighty swing of Tiger Woods.

-- Steve Almond

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