R.L. Burnside
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey

Recorded in one afternoon in the Holly Springs, Mississippi, hometown of 69-year-old blues great R.L. Burnside, A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey documents a noisy, spirited session between Burnside, his sideman Kenny Brown, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a New York City-based punk-blues reconstructionist trio. It's a strange matchup -- perhaps even sacrilegious to blues purists -- but oddly appropriate. The moments of pure musical chaos are entirely within the realm of the artists' usual work.

Along with friend and fellow bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Burnside is among the primary exponents of a blues tradition born in the remote woods of northeastern Mississippi, removed completely from the twelve-bar boogie style of Chicago blues and even the folk styles of the nearby Delta. Burnside builds his blues around one raw riff that drones on, free even of chord changes. On A Ass Pocket of Whiskey -- cut for the ultra-hip indie label Matador -- the unsophisticated toughness of songs such as "Goin' Down South" and "Shake 'Em On Down" make for thrillingly punk-styled blues -- just the sort of thing the Blues Explosion typically approaches from the opposite direction. With its unorthodox accompaniment (including wheezy theremin and Spencer's trademark shouts), the album may not be the best introduction to Burnside's idiosyncratic artistry. But throughout Ass Pocket, Burnside sounds glad to sacrifice his juke-joint obscurity for a shot at indie-rock credibility.

-- Roni Sarig

The Wallflowers
Bringing Down the Horse

It took more than three years for the Wallflowers to release this sophomore effort, with the proverbial "growing pains" (read: everyone in the band hates one another) standing in as the official explanation. In this case, the growing pains were severe enough to jettison three of five band members and to cause a parting of ways with at least one label. I was doubtful, therefore, that this year's model could live up to the audacious promise of the band's self-titled 1992 debut.

Okay, so I was wrong. Real wrong.
Bringing Down the Horse is surely one of the year's finest rock records, a gutsy tour de force that lures the listener in, to paraphrase the old Yiddish axiom, "bit by bit, then all at once." The architects of the Wallflowers' sound -- singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan and keyboardist Rami Jaffee -- have wisely recruited fretboard wizard Michael Ward (late of School of Fish), and a first-rate rhythm section (bassist Greg Richling and drummer Matt Chamberlain). Production honors were handled by the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett.

The result is a quantum leap in intensity. Where the original Wallflowers limited themselves to catchy three-minute ditties, the new incarnation revels in Dylan's incandescent melodies, crafting lush, five-minute songs that juke and sway. "One Headlight" opens with a joyous blast of Hammond B-3 organ and Ward's twangy plucks, with Dylan's raspy vocals deftly steering the song toward that rarely visited terrain where soul and country intersect. The dazzling "6th Avenue Heartache" is a ballad of romantic woe propelled by Ward's undulating slide work. "The Difference" and "Laughing Out Loud" are pounding rockers that distinguish themselves thanks to Dylan's musical hooks and deliciously vengeful barbs.

Frontman Dylan has gone to great pains to downplay the fact that he is Bob's son, understandably. The guy plainly wants to succeed on his own merit, and avoid being crushed by the expectations that come with being the heir of one of rock's greatest songwriters. But the relation is blissfully evident during the album's finest moments. On "3 Marlenas," the younger Dylan narrates the story of a self-destructive belle in a throaty growl whose exquisite phrasing snakes around Jaffe's trilling organ and Ward's gorgeous, three-chord strumming. A wash of strings nudges the song forward, as Dylan croons, "Waking up in somebody's bed/she's gone and dyed her hair red/She only went and did what she did/'Cause he would drive her home, then/There's lipstick on her new dress/She hasn't even paid yet." The quality of those lyrics, along with the gorgeous music that swirls around them, should be enough to silence any doubts as to Jakob's prodigious talents.

Daddy Dylan should be -- must be -- proud.
-- Steven Almond

Jonell Mosser
Around Townes
(Winter Harvest)

Jonell Mosser might be the best singer you've never heard of. Ten years on the Nashville club circuit, a Nashville Music Award for best backup vocalist, a contribution (a cover of the Robert Johnson classic "Crossroads") to the Boys on the Side soundtrack, but no record contract.

Now her bowie knife of a voice rips through her teeny-label debut: thirteen songs, all written by Townes Van Zandt. A dubious way to make one's national entrance, but if you're gonna go that route, you could do a lot worse than Townes. Mosser, whose delivery owes a fair-size debt to Bonnie Raitt (and more than a little to Little Feat), has a great gut sense of the songwriter's vision, and she's frequently able to enrich his singular lyrics beyond what his own quavering phrasing could ever manage.

As with Raitt's work, softer arrangements ("I'll Be Here in the Morning," for example, and "No Place to Fall") can wax sentimental, and the paint-by-numbers production and plodding musical backing are no help. But add the slightest grit and a song soars. The passion of "St. John the Gambler" easily conquers the bluegrassy mandolin that tries to tug it down. Delbert McClinton is there to help out on "If I Needed You," keeping the instrumentation from sailing off into Bruce Hornsby land. Rougher and better yet is the bitterly syncopated "Nothin'," and the sexually charged desperation of the lovely "You Are Not Needed Now" ("Lay down your head with mine/You are not needed now/And we got things to do") is enough to make a dead man's toes curl.

Word is all the insiders already knew about Mosser, knew she did all these as demos to hawk Van Zandt's tunes to more-established artists, knew there was a bootleg floating around, and knew that she writes plenty of her own material. Of course you wouldn't know any of that from the very scant press coverage she's received. What you will know if you pick up this CD is that its release was partly the brainchild of (executive producer) Jeanene Van Zandt, whose liner notes -- addressed to Townes -- drip with the pathos of a plea to a loved one who's teetering too far out on the ledge: "Always remember, Love, that your words are a comfort....You will matter forever."

While Townes and Jeanene seek professional help, somebody ought to sign Jonell Mosser to a major label. Hear that rattling sound? That's Lowell George boogying in his grave.

-- Tom Finkel

Johnny Copeland
Jungle Swing

Johnny "Clyde" Copeland is a healer. Afflicted with a serious heart condition known as cardiomyopathy, this estimable New York City-based bluesman sings and plays guitar for fellow patients during his regular visits to the artificial heart-pumping unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, Copeland's music has a salutary effect on patients and serves as a catalyst for his ongoing research work into the connection between music and healing. "Instead of being jailed up in the hospital," Oz says, "the patients felt they had their lives back again." The contents of Copeland's latest album -- recorded in early 1995, well before the first of his three open-heart surgeries -- have the power to lift everyone's spirit.

Copeland links the emotions of the blues and African music in his distinctive original songs, offsetting the plaintive ache of his singing with a redeeming musical joy. On "Blues Ain't Nothin'," Copeland's tortured vocals come up against the radiant sensitivity of his electric guitar and the steady, reassuring, yet unobtrusive groove of his ace rhythm section and Afro-percussionist Kimati Kinizulu. "Kasavubu" is an urgent invitation to clap your hands that has singer-guitarist Copeland riding the tumultuous wave of Kinizulu's array of struck and rattled instruments. "Same Thing" encourages dancing in the streets, be it those of Copeland's old Houston stomping grounds or Zaire. And the acoustic blues "I Got a Love" features the band leader's gripping display of naked expression over soothing, gospel-drenched harmonies supplied by a trio of African singers.

There is an uncommon heartfelt quality to Copeland's storytelling that enriches the entire disc; the John Synder-produced set may well be Copeland's most assured and splendent ever. (In the past, he has sometimes been bushwhacked by indifferent sound engineering.) One hopes that Copeland receives a new heart soon -- he's on a waiting list with several dozen other New Yorkers -- and continues to create his special life-affirming music for years to come.

-- Frank-John Hadley

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