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Steve Earle
I Feel Alright
(Warner Bros.)
Alejandro Escovedo
With These Hands
(Rykodisc)

Survivors are nothing new in rock and roll. Survivors with something interesting to say, however, don't come rolling out of rehab or obscurity every day. Alejandro Escovedo and Steve Earle are survivors. Escovedo has logged time in three good but not great groups since the late Seventies: first with the mangy West Coast punk group the Nuns, then with the early cowpunk wagoneers Rank and File, and finally with the guitar-blazing Texas barnstormers the True Believers. Critical praise for all of the groups was high, but none of them found much of an audience, nor did Escovedo's pair of worthy solo albums (1992's Gravity, followed the next year by Thirteen Years) or The Setters, the one-off album he recorded in '93 with singer/songwriters Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara.

Steve Earle announced his arrival in 1986 with Guitar Town, an ornery and evocative country-rock essay on small-town frustration that recalled the blue-collar vignettes of early-Eighties Bruce Springsteen. Three decent albums followed -- each of which moved Earle closer to power-rock territory -- before his long-standing addiction to heroin pulled Earle out of artistic commission. After a two-month jail sentence for drug possession, Earle returned last year with the acoustic set Train-A-Comin'.

Both musically and thematically, I Feel Alright is the most ferocious and forthright music of Earle's career, a masterful balance of shameless self-pity and cold-turkey determination, of booming rock and roll and rustic instrumentation dragged from the hills of Appalachia. Where once his rock moves were bombastic and rife with cliche, on I Feel Alright they ring with enthusiastic authority and invention, from the finger-popping shuffle on "Hard-Core Troubadour" to the acoustic-guitar crack that opens "I Feel Alright," a furious statement of purpose: "Be careful what you wish for friend/Because I've been to hell and now I'm back again." No mere elaboration of the wonders of sobriety, the album finds Earle exorcising demons through mournful acoustic blues ("CCKMP," "South Nashville Blues"), loping rockabilly ("Poor Boy"), and tear-soaked laments of failure and inadequacy ("Valentine's Day," "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You").

Escovedo shares Earle's passion for poking around in life's darkest corners -- the places where relationships crumble, patience expires, and courage degenerates into fear and despair. His bleak discoveries are laid out on With These Hands, a grim and sprawling masterpiece that weds his rough-hewn baritone with classic rock and roll riffs and the elegiac ambiance of vintage country weepers. By fusing elements of his first two acoustic-based solo albums with the six-string raveups of the True Believers, Escovedo has found an aural middle ground between his varied musical passions. Subtle wah-wah lines punctuate "Crooked Frame," a muscular vamp that tackles the early-Nineties suicide of Escovedo's ex-wife; an ensemble featuring a cello and about a dozen violinists offers a melodic coda on "Nickel and a Spoon," a migrant family's lament with a lovely guitar-and-vocal turn by Willie Nelson; and Jennifer Warnes underlines the melancholy of "Pissed Off 2 A.M." with some gorgeous background vocals.

"Sometimes," the album's centerpiece, defines much of the dark, fatalist mood lingering throughout the set: "You say you've paid your price/Well I've paid mine/And it's not pretty here/Once you've stepped inside." Likewise, the doomed lovers in "Slip" have little in their lives beyond bickering, drinking, and wall-climbing. However, although the album deals with shattered expectations and adult despair, With These Hands is about perseverance: In "Tired Skin," a beautifully spare ballad, a drained and resigned Escovedo manages somehow to find affirmation and reluctant optimism in the day-to-day grind. "Read a story from this weathered book," he groans in unison with Stephen Barber's tinkling piano. "Weave a happy ending with your hair." The song marks With These Hands, ultimately, as a hard-earned testament to the importance of survival.

By John Floyd

Various Artists
Planet Dub
(Mammoth/Planet Dog)

If you're wondering why the term "dub" pops up in music discussions so often these days, blame it on the latest piece of fashionable rock-crit-speak: "post-rock." Post-rock has come to signify how certain rock and pop musics appear to be drifting away from the melody-driven, verse/chorus structure and into a more linear, textural form that emphasizes studio craft and reconfiguration over live musicianship and traditional songwriting. Thus we have techno, ambient, jungle, and the growing instrumental art-rock movement ushered in by groups such as Labradford and Rake.

Though dub music has been around since the early Seventies, its recent resurgence is very much in line with popular music's shift. Dub began with reggae producers such as Lee Perry and King Tubby, who reworked tracks they had recorded by pulling certain instruments and vocals out of the mix, placing them elsewhere, and introducing new sonic elements, all of which resulted in completely different compositions. Instead of being a final work, a recording became merely the raw material from which an infinite number of new songs could be made.

Today dub music flourishes by staying close to its reggae roots while embracing the latest innovations of hip-hop and techno. Planet Dub collects the work of sixteen dub masters from the U.K., including Children of the Bong, Eat Static, and Alpha and Omega. While some tracks are more rootsy and others more electronic, generally these various dubs blend together indistinguishably. What stands out, though, is the flux and flow of sound: the trippy beats, the heavy bass, the echoing hypnotic washes. Though it won't displace our beloved melodies on pop radio anytime soon, dub continues to offer new constructs for how music can be made.

By Roni Sarig

Maria McKee
Life Is Sweet
(Geffen)

Ever since her mid-Eighties days as the prairie-pop diva at the center of Lone Justice, Maria McKee has been looking high and low for the appropriate sonic environment in which to place her volcanic voice and quirky sensibilities. After bumbling through stints as a singer/songwriter (her self-titled solo debut from 1989) and a gospel chanteuse (1993's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved), McKee has decided, finally, who she wants to be: everybody, from Queen and Sinead O'Connor to Stephen Sondheim and Edith Piaf.

Derivative it may be, but Life Is Sweet nonetheless succeeds -- sort of -- in spite of itself. "Scarlover," for example, opens as a musical melodrama worthy of Freddy Mercury, an epic that sets McKee's keening vocals amid symphonic strings and keyboards. But as the cut builds momentum, the flourish gives way to gritty guitar fills that squall and clang to match her vocal bluster. The same applies to "I'm Not Listening," which begins with all the pomp of a Sweeney Todd anthem, then gallops headlong into chopping guitar riffs and car-crash percussion. "I'm Awake" and "Human" are wire-to-wire bruisers, with sweet melodies that McKee seems determined to dirty up with her grinding fretwork and full-throated brooding. For all that can be said of McKee's ambition -- and you've got to admire any artist with the cojones to describe herself as "a post-punk Edith Piaf" -- some of her experiments fall flat. "Everybody," for instance, sounds like something from a Missing Persons reunion album.

McKee is at her best when she dumps all the fancy-schmancy production and lets her voice and songwriting do the work for her, as on the shimmering lullaby "What Else You Wanna Know." It doesn't sound like anyone to speak of, except McKee herself.

By Steven Almond

Bardo Pond
Amanita
(Matador)

Philadelphia's Bardo Pond brings a new sensibility to rock, one with origins in both free jazz and the chaotic skronk of no wave. As revealed on Amanita, their third long-player, the group is interested in sound and noise rather than songs and notes, and they're firm believers in the punk rock credo that anyone can do it. Their noise is conjured through collective improvisation, stretching riffs into sonic motifs and using guitars, bass, and drums to create a dense wall of fuzzy sound. Singer Isobel Sollenburger doesn't articulate anything; her vocals just float above the cacophonous mix. Her flute playing pushes the music into Middle Eastern trance terrain, weaving an ethereal thread through the band's noisy sculptures.

By embellishing their throbbing, gelatinous sound with overdubbed instruments and voices, Bardo Pond at times recalls the multilayered sound of Brian Eno circa 1974. Mostly, though, they come off as a heavier version of the slowcore drone of groups such as Codeine. Bardo Pond isn't destroying musical ideas so much as expanding the limitations of improv and finding new zones in which to experiment.

By Stephen Tignor


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