Blue Roses From the Moon (Elektra)
Blue Roses From the Moon is predominantly the golden-throated Nanci Griffith that we've all come to love. It's full-figured folk, warmed with Griffith's angelic voice. But it's time to talk about appropriateness. Griffith can cover Kate Wolf and John Prine exquisitely (as on Other Voices Other Rooms); she can cover Guy Clark's "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere" just fine, which she does for Blue Roses' final track. She can even cover herself, doing so here with another take on "Gulf Coast Highway," this one with Darius Rucker (aka Hootie) doing James Hooker's original duet duties. But she shouldn't ever cover "I Fought the Law." It's just a terrible fit. The Clash, they can cover the Sonny Curtis tune first made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four, but Nanci fights the law? Well, no shit the law wins. I imagine she loves the song, and reveres the songwriter; however, that doesn't make it a good choice as something to record. Alison Krauss admits to loving AC/DC but, thankfully, you don't hear her doing "Big Balls." The same holds for Griffith's cover of the Nick Lowe-Paul Carrack song, "Battlefield." Griffith just ain't that tough. Blue Roses is a good album made even better with a few judicious uses of that handy skip button on your CD player.
(3.0 stars) -- Michael Bertin
Straightaways (Warner Bros.)
A lengthy confluence of conversation, Wild Turkey, and Trace taught me Son Volt makes good sippin' music. Sure enough, the band's sophomore effort, Straightaways, finds Jay Farrar and his Mississippi River Mudcats with lips firmly planted 'round that same old whiskey bottle. "Caryatid Easy" is a propulsive, weatherbeaten rocker that deserves to be turned up as loud as it can go, yet it's only an appetizer to the sublime "Back Into Your World." A chiming, poignant connection of musicians to material equaled only by Trace's masterpiece "Tear Stained Eye," this song may let Son Volt into a lot of people's worlds -- right through that hole on VH1 opened by the Wallflowers. It's an anthem. Too bad most of the rest of the album never goes much beyond Farrar singing about the "long, slow fade" of "passing under barren skies." Son Volt tends to get carried away with atmospherics, and several of the later songs just don't connect the way the first two, "Picking Up the Signal," and "Cemetery Savior," do. With the chilling reconciliation ballad "Been Set Free" as a closer, Straightaways would've been an absolutely perfect down-the-hatch CD-5 shot. As an album, however, it still makes fine sippin' music.
(3.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray
HAMELL ON TRIAL
The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword (Mercury)
This is a Hamell on Trial album? It's got drums. It's got bass. It's got a horns. It's got Ed Hamell singing. Usually he vents, or rants, but on his second major-label effort, he actually sings a couple of times. Those, however, are the obvious differences, not the significant ones. Hamell may have gotten someone to work the saxophone while he plays what he feels, the thing is, it don't feel frantic. Big as Life, Hamell's debut, was six cups of coffee and two hits of crystal meth -- frenzied. On Chord, the adrenaline surge has been slowed to an I.V. drip; it may be a bigger-sounding album, but it has a much smaller impact. After the death-camp march of "The Vines," an updated and government-sponsored take on the myth of Sisyphus, the remaining bright spots, "In a Bar" and "The Meeting," lie patiently at album's end. The latter, the mission statement of anti-folksters ("I'm like the Beastie Boys except I'm only one"), sounds like the real Hamell -- or the Hamell that used to assault crowds from local stages. As relieving as it is to hear that the one-man urban assault squad of the acoustic guitar hasn't been completely eradicated, it's evident that Hamell was much better at poking holes in the rock star facade (see Big as Life's "Z-Roxx") than at singing his own praises. It's a Hamell on Trial record alright; unfortunately, the best way to tell could be that it has his picture on it.
(2.0 stars) -- Michael Bertin
Come In and Burn (DreamWorks)
On the surface, Henry Rollins' recent work revels in the violent accouterments of angry guydom with a ferocity that is somewhat disturbing no matter how you approach it. The humor and exuberant defiance that earmarked his days in Black Flag have been subjugated by intense and difficult self-examination. However, the key difference between Come In and Burn and umpteen other acts of public soul-purging is that Rollins always struggles to find clarity in pain and loss. This is a focused act of purification that never stoops to kicking over paper tigers as a cheap device to articulate rage. Rollins doesn't posit himself as some high-and-mighty idol capable of supreme judgment. Instead of pointing the finger, he vows to "kiss my fear on the mouth" ("Starve"). The fear-effacing continues on "The End of Something," a powerful musical and lyrical testament to the ambiguities of change. Rollins' bandmates lay down a thick groove throughout the proceedings that adds the pulse of an urban wasteland to his words. In spite of all the loneliness and rejection espoused, Come In and Burn is ultimately the prolific triumph of a hard-won sense of self-worth. (The Rollins Band plays Liberty Lunch, Friday, June 13.)
(3.5 stars) -- Greg Beets
Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
You'd think after spending most of your life ducking bottles, blades, and jealous husbands in the most Les Blank tarpaper Mississippi juke joints there are, that it'd be easy to teach a bunch of over-educated white hipsters (who nonetheless had either the good sense to seek him out or the good fortune to stumble across him) a thing or two about the blues. You'd be right. That's the story of R.L. Burnside, Mr. Wizard, Big Daddy, septuagenarian bluesman from Holly Springs, Mississippi, currently being marketed as indie rock's resident relic. And, as with any object on display, certain problems have arisen. How big they are depends on how much you genuinely care about this minstrel-or-mentor debate versus how much brilliantly visceral blues albums like Mr. Wizard get you off. Burnside's guitar grinding isn't aimed at the brain or the heart or anywhere else but the small of the back, sticking like a chard of broken glass into that spinal nerve that controls all voluntary activity of the hips. Burnside contends he causes earthquakes, and this album is what he means. With Mr. Wizard, shaking those hips is all you can do, so shake 'em on down.
(4.0 stars) -- Christopher Gray
Middle of Nowhere (Mercury)
When Mercury shipped their five-song Hanson advances to press and radio in March, it was a brown paper bag job -- just song titles and the Dust Brothers' production credit. Whether this crisp bubblegum pop and retro funk came from Motown or Tulsa, from black men or white children, didn't matter, because we didn't know. In fact, for those few weeks, it was only the songs that mattered, with "MMMBop" and "Speechless" being undeniably tasty verse-hook-chorus affairs -- the type of structurally perfect songs both Top 40 radio and other songwriters dream about. Later, MTV told us this new Jackson 5 was really the Oklahoma 3 (brothers Isaac, Taylor, and Zachary Hanson), owing their look to Kurt Cobain and the bounce of their songs to the doctoring of Desmond Child. Yet, aside from the fact that the full album sports just a tune or three that matches the anthemic glory of that initial five-song sampler, there's still no reason not to like Middle of
Nowhere, predominately and unmistakably music for youth -- the celebration of theirs and the recapturing yours. And in an age where we perhaps know too much about the musicians and not enough about their music, this is no guilty pleasure, it's an absolute pleasure.
(3.0 stars) -- Andy Langer
THE LONDON SUEDE
Coming Up (Nude/Columbia)
In my dream, Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Suede are playing Southpark Meadows. All goes well during Sleeper's supporting set, until, midway through, a volley of automatic weapons fire erupts from backstage. It's Noel and Liam taking out Damon Albarn with 9mm Teflon-coated slugs. With Blur dead, the Oasis sibs cast aside their guns and lunge at each other's throats with razor-sharp coke spoons, blood, hair, and epithets flying. High above, Elastica's Justine Frischmann drops from a circling B-12, plowing headfirst, sans parachute, into Jarvis Cocker's technicolor ego and dying a heroine's death. Just then, Suede's Brett Anderson strides out, hips, balls, and bravado intact. Now, the real fun begins. Rumors to the contrary, new Suede (or London Suede here in the states) guitarist Richard Oakes isn't the crap artist most thought. True, departing songwriter Bernard Butler helped make Suede the sexy, slinky, woefully overlooked and underappreciated Britpop semi-sensation it is today, fueling the ongoing NME/Melody Maker huzzahs with swanky hooks and Bowie-esque choruses on such classics as the eponymous Suede, dogmanstar, and now Coming Up. But Oakes more than fills the boots of his predecessor, and the new CD is a pure pop pleasure, thick and sinewy and terribly, cooly British. Is Suede the great white hope for British pop music? Impossible to tell, since they remain mostly unpopular here in the U.S. But that just means cheaper ticket prices and more chances to catch them live in smaller, better venues. If they ever get here, that is.
(3.5 stars) -- Marc Savlov