Robert Mirabal
(Warner Western)

Robert Mirabal has two main cultural threads in the cloth of his being. One is a traditional Native American flute maker and player. His flutes are on display at the Smithsonian, he's recorded and toured in a new-age context, and he was heralded for his score for Land, a modern dance piece by Japanese dancers Eiko and Koma. Mirabal's also a rock and roll fanatic. As a lifelong resident of the original American heartland (Taos Pueblo in New Mexico), he was especially drawn to the music of John Mellencamp. And here on his first "pop" record, Mirabal utilizes three Mellencamp sidemen: guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic (who produced), along with drummer Kenny Aronoff.

Together they create a magical blend. The album begins with "Hope," a sizzling boogie blues romp with traditional vocal choruses and flute. From there it's a twisting journey, little by little turning down the flame of tempo and volume and going deeper into the mix of ancient and modern. "Witch Hunt" is all chants and chest-thump rhythms, flutes, and Mirabal's haunting voice, which seems to touch nerves you never knew you had as it moves through the air. The song works as both primal rock and roll and dance music (a club DJ could play it without a remix). It makes you want to move, to sweat, to feel.

The album's centerpiece is a ten-minute poem, a cinematic epic in which drops of blood ooze from a murder victim into the lives of his killers, a Navajo couple named Tony and Allison. It opens with icy electronics and Native American percussion until a heavy hip-hop beat enters to pave the way for a rock guitar solo. Here, as throughout Mirabal, you don't see how the different parts are stitched together, because they aren't. They come to us whole from an artist who has assimilated a thousand years of North American culture and given it back to us in a brand new way.

-- Lee Ballinger

Psycho's Path
John Lydon
(Virgin Records)

Come on, you already know who he is. And chances are you've already decided whether you love him or hate him. On this, his first true solo album, the one-time Rotten one writes all the songs and plays virtually all the instruments and produces. Not surprisingly, Psycho's Path is heavy on the electronica and light on the virtuosity.

The overall sound of this disc is a departure from the mutated rock of Public Image Limited (PiL). "Sun" sees Lydon squeezing out the melody on an accordion and relying on cardboard boxes for percussion. Samples created by Lydon himself are woven through the bleak compositions, and Lydon's trademark yelp is as strident as ever (see especially "Another Way").

Lydon's lyrical concerns are as grim as always. "Grave Yard" opens the album with a yarn about a man being led to execution as his lover awaits his return home. "Psychopath" is roughly based on serial murderer John Wayne Gacy, the so-called Killer Clown. This album, wholly produced by music's own killer clown, is certain to baffle and alienate mainstream fans. That's probably the way Lydon wants it.

-- Greg Prato

Carrying Your Love with Me
George Strait

Country radio is such a wasteland nowadays that the infrequent bright spots blaze forth like signs from on high, like something you need to believe in just to make it through another half-hour of Hot New Country. More often that not, you can count on Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam to deliver, and you can count on Mark Chesnutt and Alan Jackson often enough to at least keep paying attention. Almost everything else is just Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody.

In this dim landscape, George Strait has burned like a supernova, delivering fifteen years' worth of masterful singing, great songs, and twangy musicianship, fifteen years' worth of reasons to still believe in big-time commercial country music. And so it is with tremendous disappointment -- maybe despair would be a better word -- that I pronounce Strait's latest, Carrying Your Love with Me, hands down his worst album ever. This is not to suggest that it's actually a bad record. It is simply so lifeless as to render it indistinguishable from standard radio tripe.

The musicianship behind Strait remains stellar, especially on up-tempo fare like "Round About Way" and "I've Got a Funny Feeling," and Strait should get some kind of award for continuing to build entire songs around the gorgeous whine of Paul Franklin's steel guitar ("Save the Steels," as the T-shirts say). But the songs all this crack playing supports fall prey to every cliched contemporary country pose in the book, distancing the listener from the complicated emotional responses that once were country music's hallmark, and Strait's, too.

Starting with a man working up the guts to ask out a woman, then building to God finding the courage to create the universe, "The Nerve" wants to be filled with gratitude, but it's too smug and self-satisfied to come close. "She'll Leave You with a Smile" is so condescending to women, and so trivializing of the pain that broken relationships bring, as to be insulting. Worse, on the handful of songs that actually aren't too bad -- and which, not coincidentally, were all written before things in Nashville changed so drastically -- Strait seems, eighteen studio albums in, to be merely going through the motions. "Today my world slipped away," he actually sings at one point, covering Vern Gosdin's old hit, but he sounds like he could be singing about any old thing, like what he's singing about is beside the point. He sounds like Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody.

-- David Cantwell

Cocktail Combos
Jumpin' Like Mad (Capitol Blues Collection)
Various Artists
(Capitol Records)

The most recent book by British musicologist/journalist Barney Hoskyns, Waiting for the Sun: The Sound of Los Angeles, offers up the theory that in the Forties, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was home to the most vibrant black music scene in America. These two multi-disc reissues, part of an ongoing series exploring the vast blues music archive of L.A.-based Capitol Records, make that claim difficult to dispute.

The triple-disc Cocktail Combos collection begins with some of the seminal work of the Nat "King" Cole Trio, whose mix of jazz, jive, and standards influenced an entire generation of West Coast piano player/vocalists, including Ray Charles, Roy Hawkins, Charles Brown, and Floyd Dixon, the last two of whom are featured in this collection. As at any good cocktail party, each guest here brings something unique to the table. Cole's effortless delivery and distinctive piano style, along with the artistry of guitarist Oscar Moore, the trio's secret weapon, provide intoxicating moments on classics such as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Route 66." Dixon displays more obvious blues influences in his music, and his lyrics deftly explore unexpected topics such as the jealousy and doubt that can accompany a long-distance relationship ("Telephone Blues" and "Call Operator 210").

Charles Brown appears both as a solo artist and with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. A Texan by birth, Brown mixes his home state's bluesier sound with a lugubrious, slightly besotted vocal style and lyrics of desolation that evoke nights spent in dark bars where liquor fuels dark thoughts. The titles tell it all: "Tormented," "Trouble Blues," and "Without the One You Love." Cocktail Nation poseurs beware! Despite the loungey-sounding title, this is not a collection of lounge music, that stylish but ultimately vapid subgenre of pop. Indeed, what gives the collection its power is that it features real people expressing real emotions, not background sounds for cigar-chomping, martini-swilling yuppies.

The Jumpin' Like Mad collection offers up two discs of jump blues, which is what rock and roll was called before it was called rock and roll. This rock and roll, however, was (and is) for adults: Eating, drinking, dancing, and more drinking are the major themes here, and all are explored with lusty enthusiasm. Highlights include Jimmy Liggins's "I Ain't Drunk, I'm Just Drinkin'," finally making its CD debut; Nellie Lutcher's sexy "Fine Brown Frame"; and Big Joe Turner's blazing "Jumpin' Tonight."

Nearly every artist featured on the compilations was based in Los Angeles at the time of these recordings. Most of them were transplants, lured to the city by its booming post-war economy. Their collective talents coalesced into one of the greatest music scenes ever to assemble itself in a nightclub district.

-- Eddie Hankins

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Lee Ballinger
David Cantwell
Eddie Hankins
Greg Prato