Various Artists

Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon

(Island/Def Jam)

They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but it can still be fun to fiddle. In the case of the Stephen Marley-conceived-and-produced Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon, the fiddling may not improve on the perfection of his father's music, but it's definitely fascinating to listen to. Rooting through the Bob vaults for alternative vocals to twelve of his fiercest anthems, Stephen pairs his father's voice with rapping by some of hip-hop's leading lights, as well as Aerosmith's Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. The instrumental backings, concocted by Stephen with brothers Julian and Damien, are also new, each inspired by the style of the guest artist. The premise underpinning this collection? Rebel music is rebel music, be it reggae, hip-hop, or rock, and the best of these collaborations do indeed elucidate the natural links between any musicians bent on upsetting "Babylon shitstem."

A notion running even deeper through this album though, is reggae's constant desire to seduce America's urban market. Although Bob Marley is recognized by the urban -- and virtually every other -- audience as the world's greatest roots artist, that persistently elusive African-American listener remains less impressed with the genre of reggae itself. All of which makes Chant Down Babylon not so much an end in itself, as a means.

This mission is signaled not only by the track selections, but also by the ways in which guest artists handle the challenge of posthumously jamming with Bob. The set piece is, of course, "Turn Your Lights Down Low," featuring Lauryn Hill ("baby mother" to two of Bob Marley's many grandkids) wringing every drop of sultry true luhv from that sublime composition. For his turn on "Rastaman Chant," Busta Rhymes reaches down to his Jamaican roots and pulls up a scorching patois-flavored rap about Selassie I that will surprise some, but not those who've recognized in Rhymes's own work the traits of a hard-core rootsman. Other strong pairings include The Roots' Black Thought dropping his own deep science on "Burning"; Cheeks of the Lost Boyz with Miami's veteran soulster Betty Wright adding graceful harmonies to "Guiltiness"; a soldierly Guru on "Johnny Was"; MC Lyte's terse flow on "Jammin'"; Rakim's hardline rap on "Concrete Jungle"; Erykah Badu gliding through "No More Trouble"; and a glittering bebop-tinged vocal turn from Krazy Bone on "Rebel Music." Less impressive are Steven Tyler's clumsy, blustering turn on (what else?) "Roots Rock Reggae," and Chuck D's shockingly timid performance on "Survival." Purists may charge desecration but Bob, always a musical adventurer, is smiling somewhere. -- Elena Oumano

Mark Lanegan

I'll Take Care of You

(Sub Pop)

Like Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Mark Lanegan has one of those midnight voices that could find the pathos in a lyric as innocuous and silly as "Yummy Yummy Yummy." Fortunately the former Screaming Trees vocalist mines darker territory on I'll Take Care of You, his fourth solo album. This assemblage of covers is anything but an obligatory nod to either Lanegan's favorite singles in his record collection, or a postgrunge romp through the verities of Black Sabbath and Bad Company. Instead the eleven-song set offers an eclectic mix of traditional bluegrass ballads, overlooked Eighties punk nuggets, Bakersfield honky-tonk, Seventies folk, gospel, and some of the more anguished love letters produced during the Sixties heyday of Southern soul.

Where his full-time band brought a somber, weary edge to the metallic bombast of the early-Nineties Seattle sound, Lanegan's solo work throughout the decade (The Winding Sheet, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, and Scraps at Midnight) has been intimate to the point of unnerving, mournful and bleary-eyed without surrendering any energy, spirit, or bite. He does the same throughout I'll Take Care of You, working with a variation on his usual cast of sidemen (most notably ex-Dinosaur Jr. bassist Mike Johnson) to explore the underbelly of popular and not-so-popular music. In the process he's pulled off something not unlike what Bob Dylan did on his Nineties cover albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Bad: taking the lost and the legendary remnants of the past and making them not just something new, but something of his own.

Flaunting his punk-rock roots, Lanegan toasts the Gun Club's late Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Leaving Trains' Falling James, surpassing them both, the former with a droning, effective version of "Carry Home" and the latter with a suitably creepy take on "Creeping Coastline of Lights." He wrenches the tragedy and doom from the ancient murder ballad "Little Sadie," and gives Tim Hardin's "Shiloh Town" a reading laced with dejection and fatalism, carried by the subtle thrust of Barrett Martin's drums and Dave Krueger's haunting violin. It's a pair of soul covers, however, that establish Lanegan as a grand interpreter of melancholic outpourings: Bobby Bland's "I'll Take Care of You" and Eddie Floyd's "Consider Me." He sticks close to the original arrangement of Bland's desperate plea for acceptance, yet ultimately sounds too beaten to follow through on the promise of the title. "Consider Me" is even better, a swaying, classic soul ballad on which Lanegan pulls off a blue-eyed vocal filled, like nearly everything on I'll Take Care of You, with passion, anguish, and tears. -- John Floyd

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John Floyd
Elena Oumano