Utah Phillips and Ani Difranco
The Past Didn't Go Anywhere
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
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
The Way I Should
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.
Whether she's singing of the horrible cost of war, child abuse, or child neglect, her dignity lays waste to whatever lame excuses might try to answer her. Nowhere is this achieved more gloriously than on "Wasteland of the Free," a country rocker that sounds like the greatest song Jackson Browne never wrote (but with a lot more edge and twang than that suggests). With a head-spinning list of familiar injustices made fresh and painful, DeMent captures our society's sickness and finds the bottom line: "The poor have become the enemy." Far from sounding steeped in ideology, the power of "Wasteland of the Free" is essentially the same power that hallmarks all of DeMent's work -- the willingness to talk about what we already know but don't know how to face. Thankfully, DeMent's sweet, brave voice won't let us turn away.
-- Danny Alexander
Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver
Red Sovine may forever be the keynote artist of the country-and-western subgenre of truck-driving songs, but there's a lot more out there than his maudlin, bathetic hits from the Sixties and Seventies ("Teddy Bear" being only the worst example). From Dave Dudley's anthemic "Six Days on the Road" to Red Simpson's flat-out bizarre "I'm a Truck," this overlooked branch of the honky-tonk tree helped keep raw, white-knuckled boogie on the charts during the years when producers were ladling on the syrup.
Rig Rock Deluxe brings together some truck-driving icons of the past (Del Reeves, Red Simpson) with the hotshots of the modern country era (Marty Stuart, Kelly Willis, Jim Lauderdale, and Son Volt among them) running through the songs that -- along with coffee and speed -- help keep truck drivers awake during those long, lonely nights on the freeway. And unlike the myriad tribute albums that glut the bins, this one works wonderfully -- not just because the songs hold up so well, but because the artists obviously relish these tales of isolation, amphetamines, and the lure of the endless gray ribbon.
On the best of the duets, Jim Lauderdale teams up with Del Reeves for a run through "Diesel Diesel Diesel," while Red Simpson and sound-alike vocalist Junior Brown haul combustibles in the "Nitro Express." Marty Stuart's self-penned saga "Miss Marie and the Bedford Blaze" is the best thing he's done in two years, and Jay Farrar and Son Volt savor the pathos in the road classic "Lookin' at the World Through a Windshield." (Farrar also contributes aching harmony vocals on Kelly Willis's bracing version of Little Feat's "Truck Stop Girl.") Steve Earle nails a definitive reading of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues," and Buck Owens asks the perennial trucker's question "Will There Be Big Rigs in Heaven." And for a finale, you get an all-star rendition of "Six Days on the Road" featuring everyone from Dale Watson and Jon Langford to Wayne Hancock and Rosie Flores -- sort of a "We Are the World" for the trucker set.
-- John Floyd
The Baja Sessions
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Chris Isaak seems to have annoyed a few critics who think recording a song popularized by Dean Martin ("Return to Me") is somehow middle-of-the-road, rather than wonderfully subversive and downright decadent. Read Nick Tosches's Dino to understand the full revolutionary impact of such a move.
In a nod to the many who have compared his voice with Roy Orbison's, Isaak does include the latter's "Only the Lonely" on The Baja Sessions. To hear him sing the familiar song points up the similarity in the two men's voices -- the tang of masochism that enlivens their romanticism. But what made Orbison's music all the more poignant was his charmingly awkward delivery; you knew he'd experienced unrequited love in a soul-deep way long before he ever sang "Pretty Woman." Isaak, though, isn't quite as woebegone, in either voice or persona, to totally pull off Orbison-like romantic pain. Instead, he's closer in type to old Dino -- a female magnet whose emotionally warm voice promised totally over-the-top romantic passion -- and is ideally suited to singing Martin's sort of Latin-tinged love songs. Isaak even has the hang of Martin's lazy, just-rolled-out-of-bed diction.
There is a quality in both Martin's and Isaak's voices that remains private and unmoved, imbuing their music with a certain unattainability. An album like The Baja Sessions is meant to be a total escape; therefore a major flaw has to be the self-consciously casual, slapdash production. While there is a commendable verve to the live band interplay, a lame organ solo in "Two Hearts" and other self-consciously real mistakes only jar the listener out of paradise and back to reality. But that's only an occasional splash of cold water in the face during an otherwise heavenly tropical siesta.
-- Susan Whitall