The Road I'm On: A Retrospective

He's best remembered for the string of brilliant doo-wop hits he had in the Fifties with the Belmonts -- swaggering, salacious cuts such as "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer" -- but Dion DiMucci not only maintained a career throughout the Sixties, he pushed his art to exciting new levels. The Road I'm On is a magnificent assemblage of Dion's work for Columbia, where he dived headfirst into scorching blues and introspective folk, as well as continuing to perfect his street-smart, cocksure rock and roll anthems. Talking about his Columbia sound a few years back to writer Gene Sculatti, Dion described it perfectly as "R&B, street-corner doo-wop, some Hank Williams 'Honky Tonk Blues.' You filter it all through an Italian neighborhood full of wiseguys and all that, and it comes out with an attitude, like 'Yo!'"

That's what you get through The Road I'm On, from the hits "Ruby Baby" and "Donna the Prima Donna" to ace covers of Chuck Berry ("Too Much Monkey Business," "Johnny B. Goode"), Willie Dixon ("Spoonful"), and Bob Dylan ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"), not to mention a slew of amazing tracks that have been tucked away in the Columbia vaults for nearly 30 years. Although his hits dried up not long after "Donna the Prima Donna" (in part because of a nasty drug problem), The Road I'm On is a tribute to the genius that never strayed too far from Dion's art.

-- John Floyd

Foo Fighters
The Colour and the Shape

Slight expectations are easy to meet. Who knew that Dave Grohl wrote songs before the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut? And what a pleasant surprise Foo Fighters was, proof that Nirvana's pop-punk glory didn't die with Kurt Cobain. "I'll Stick Around" and "This Is a Call" aren't the equal of Cobain's best, but Foo Fighters earned most of its raves and million-plus sales. Any doubts of its quality were overshadowed by sheer disbelief that Grohl -- a drummer, for chrissakes -- had done most of it himself.

But Foo Fighters is now a real band (Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mandel, and new drummer Taylor Hawkins), and The Colour and the Shape is their answer to the prove-it-again challenge that follows any big breakthrough. Unlike Cobain, however, Grohl seems destined to survive whatever comes his way, be it mixed reviews, tepid sales, or the end of his marriage, which crashed and burned between albums.

The Colour and the Shape is supposedly Grohl's "divorce album," but don't expect the white-knuckle ride of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. Grohl doesn't have the patience to stay sad for long, and producer Gil Norton (Pixies) has buffed his can't-help-singing-'em melodies to a bright, mod-rock sheen.

Truth to tell, Grohl sounds more comfortable on the power-pop surge of "Monkey Wrench" and the light, jazzy breeze of "See You" than on the Cobain-like screams he forces on "Enough Space" and "Windup." Overall the band uses Nirvana's sonic formula (soft verse, loud chorus) a little too often -- the effect has been cheapened by too much imitation. Considering Grohl's formative background (drummer on the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene), it's disarming how good he is at writing and singing ballads. There's nothing particularly distinctive about the lyrics of "February Star" or "Walking After You," but Grohl's voice is sweet enough to soften the lingering sting of loss and regret.

The Colour and the Shape won't stand the music industry on its head or inspire a generation of like-minded bands. It's not even the equal of Foo Fighters, though part of what's missing is a sense of surprise. A good album, it has some of the same facile appeal of Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You. (Consider Grohl and VS's Louise Post the newly crowned first couple of post-alternative pop.)

Though Grohl has never spoken publicly about Cobain's suicide or his relationship with Courtney Love, I always assumed there was meaning buried deep in the noisy bowels of Foo Fighters. Now I'm convinced that Grohl is simply an ordinary hero; he'll bleed for his own pain, but damned if he's going to suffer for you, too. In other words, look to Foo Fighters for reliable hooks, but don't expect them to shatter your world or build it up again either.

-- Keith Moerer

Mitch Woods
Keeper of the Flame

Mitch Woods is a first-rate blues and boogie pianist and leader of one of the most dependable bands on the national blues circuit, the Rocket 88s. Keeper of the Flame is a departure for the San Francisco Bay-area musician in that he's offering duo performances with five different luminaries of blues and R&B. Call it Woods's labor of love, or simply a lot of fun for your ears.

Woods is attentive to the modulations of feeling from boogie man John Lee Hooker on "Never Get Out of These Blues Alive," getting more from the Hook than most collaborators have in ages. In the faster company of harmonica ace James Cotton, he cruises right along, hammering his 88 keys on four tunes -- the train-riding "Chicago Express," the revamping of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," the emotionally naked "Blues for Michael," and the self-explanatory "Blues Hangover." In "Blues Ya 'Fore I Lose Ya," Woods matches the scintillating verve of Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson note for note; the two also are in agreement on the ebulliently rolling bass lines of "Blue Boogie" and "Full Tilt Boogie." Woods doesn't just play stirring piano; he turns in an enjoyable vocal here and there, rounding out many lyrics with a convincing wryness.

Two numbers apiece with singer/guitarist Earl King and the late saxophonist Lee Allen find the musicians dressed to the nines for a look-see around New Orleans. King sings his signature song "Lonely, Lonely Nights" like he means it, and the duo's treatment of "Big Chief" (the classic that King wrote for Professor Longhair) makes a favorable impression with their controlled urgency. Allen, whose horn sparked many Little Richard and Fats Domino hits, adds to the after-midnight mood of "Moanin' & Tinklin'" (one of several Woods originals on the album), and then he and the piano man frolic on "Jump for Joy," an instrumental. As always, Woods keeps his cool while blowing his top.

-- Frank-John Hadley

George Jones
She Thinks I Still Care
(Razor & Tie)

More than any other stretch from George Jones's incredible four-decadelong career, it's his brief early-Sixties stint with United Artists that is most routinely held up as the best-ever work by country music's best-ever singer. After all, it was here that he recorded the unforgettable ballad "She Thinks I Still Care" and the lost-love romp "The Race Is On," two classic singles that would do much to shape Jones's career, and country music, for many years to follow. So I would never in a million years have suspected that the two-disc collection, She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection, the United Artist Years, could turn out to be so disappointing.

Comprising selections by Rich Kienzle (the ubiquitous C&W liner-note contributor who normally makes up for his lack of critical commentary with detailed histories and impeccable taste), the collection naturally includes each of Jones's 21 charting United Artists singles. This stage of Jones's career stands out as the period in which he finally perfected the legendary ballad style that he'd first discovered on a handful of Mercury tracks ("The Window Up Above," "Tender Years") a year or so earlier, so the best cuts here are, predictably, the slow, sad ones: the murder tale "Open Pit Mine," the self-implicating "I Saw Me," the self-defeating "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," the haunting Melba Montgomery duet "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," and the title track. Each of these provides a definitive example of the honky-tonk idiom.

But the remaining nineteen tracks are often a puzzle; they favor unremarkable novelties and pedestrian performances over superior, more representative selections. The first two cuts, the slight "Running Bear" and "Root Beer," didn't chart, and they fail to highlight what was most typical of Jones's art during these years. What's worse, these forgettable numbers have apparently taken the place of essential Jones performances such as "Brown to Blue" (which Elvis Costello would one day cover) and the intensely delicate "Book of Memories." Unfortunately, questionable selections continue throughout the set. (Another example: George's "Faded Love" is a by-the-numbers Bob Wills cover, but we get it instead of "Trouble in Mind" or "Warm Red Wine," Wills-associated numbers that Jones truly made his own.) One also wishes that at least a few of the seven (!) Melba Montgomery duets here had been omitted -- not because they aren't incredible, but because they are already available to fans on the George and Melba installment of Capitol's Vintage series. (Kienzle knows this; he wrote the notes for that set too).

Don't misunderstand. This is, after all, a George Jones collection; it includes music that's undeniably great and important. Too bad it's not as great as it should have been.

-- David Cantwell