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Parton, Little Sparrow
(Sugar Hill/ Blue Eye)
In an interview decades ago, the great Merle Haggard lamented the fact that one of country music's most talented singer-writers, Dolly Parton, had wasted her greatest artistic gifts when she reinvented herself as a pop diva. Now, stripped of all the glitz and camp that accompanied her rise to celebrity, Parton has returned to her musical roots. On 1999's The Grass Is Blue, Parton created open- hearted, bittersweet mountain tunes capturing the tribulations and triumphs of poor working class communities that country music once gave voice. This year's Little Sparrow mines the same rich vein of tradition, again with stunning results. Supported by a cast of bluegrass superstars, including Jerry Douglas (dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), and Bryan Sutton (guitar), Parton tells tales of unwanted pregnancies, fatal attractions, and shattered dreams. A tragic old school program for sure, but Parton's sublime vocals and the radiant string band expertise infuse the material with graceful resilience.
Maria Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain Records)
Inspired by a visit to Memphis Minnie's grave in Walls, Mississippi, Maria Muldaur pays tribute to the rural and urban blues music of the 1920s and 1930s. Kindred spirits such as Bonnie Raitt, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Taj Mahal, Tracy Nelson, and Angela Strehli are on hand for musical and commercial support, but it's the power and conviction of Muldaur's performances that nail Memphis Minnie's pre-feminist “take-no- shit-from nobody” attitude. Working with spare arrangements employing only acoustic guitars, bass, and piano, Muldaur sings the blues nasty, tough, and eloquent.
Amy Ray, Stag (Daemon Records)
On her solo debut, the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray gets a chance to unleash a raw, riot grrrl sound only hinted at in collaborations with Emily Sailers. With vicious guitars roaring behind her molten diatribes against antigay violence and assorted gender absurdities, Ray has fashioned an attack that should connect with hard rock sisters (and brothers) who have come of age in the wake of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.
Carthy, Angels And
Cigarettes (WEA/Warner Bros)
Though she is the daughter of British folk legends Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, singer-songwriter-fiddler Eliza Carthy has gradually strayed from the traditionalist straight and narrow. On her third solo album and first U.S. release, Carthy echoes the voices of Sandy Denny, June Tabor, and Linda Thompson, as she mixes folk freely and uniquely with strains of rock and pop. At the heart of this genre fusion, however, lays Carthy's folk based commitment to words and class conscious everyday stories.
Bill Frissell, Blues Dream (Nonsuch)
Guitarist Bill Frissell, through albums such as Nashville (1997), Gone, Just Like A Train (1998), and Ghost Town (2000), has gradually been merging folk, country, blues, gospel, R&B, rock, and jazz into a progressive multicultural vision that ranks no music or people above another. Blues Dream extends Frissell's mission, this time with a musical weave encompassing near everything that has gone before. With the assistance of another extraordinary guitarist, Greg Leisz, and a trio of sterling horn players, Frissell manages an expansive blend of lonesome rural blues, shades of Ellington, avant jazz, and soul.
Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (Milestone)
Although tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins recorded numerous studio milestones in the 1950s, among them Work Time, Way Out West, Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, and The Freedom Suite, his astonishing powers of improvisation are now most fully revealed in live performances. As a result, many of his fine studio recordings of the past decade have gained little attention. Released late last year, This Is What I Do is solid evidence that Rollins's relentless inventiveness is still coming vividly alive in the recording studio. Mixing up a set of long forgotten movie tunes from the 1930s (“Sweet Leilani” and “The Moon Of Mankoora”), a gorgeous standard (“A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square”) and three originals, Rollins displays riveting complexities of texture, melody, harmony, and rhythm through a repertoire of blues and bop, calypso, samba, and funk.
Shipp, New Orbit
Pianist Matthew Shipp makes jazz again a mode of singular, transcendent surprise and in these days of Ken Burns market dominance, that means product with marginal visibility. Shipp's music, however, is not inaccessible. On the beautifully haunting New Orbit, Shipp's compositions ease listeners toward moods of quiet, meditative reflection. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith contrasts dark muted tones and brief lyrical explosions as Shipp's slow winding trancy themes pull listeners further and further from the clatter of the everyday.
Buckley, Morning Glory:
The Tim Buckley Anthology
The history of popular music is littered with the tragedies of obscure “legends” who shined with promise for a brief moment before bowing to the fatal verdict of “no commercial potential.” Tim Buckely, despite his miraculous vocal gifts and daring imagination, is one of those cult figures who could never capture the populist pulse of his time. All of the nine albums he made between 1966 and 1975 were commercial failures, and this lack of success contributed to bouts of depression, drug use, and death (from a heroin overdose) at the age of 29. Still, unlike so many of pop's gone and forgotten, Buckley's legacy endures. A sturdy body of songs, shreds of influence, and the premature death of his son, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, have combined to kindle a new appreciation of Tim Buckley's offbeat originality.
Because Buckely's ambitions often tilted over into self-indulgence, Rhino has had the good sense to limit Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology to the most essential and accessible material. The 2-CD, 33 track compilation still covers the trajectory of Buckley's rise and fall: romantic folk balladry, social protests, extended poetic flights reminiscent of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, free jazz and classical experimentation, and the final desperate detours through rock and soul. But even Buckley's easier and more brilliant side is not an easy sell.
Dispensing with narrative and verse-chorus-verse structure, and favoring loose, floating melodies and arrangements, Buckley's music and words were meant to evoke intimacy not explain it. Accordingly, his songs, at their best, launched long wandering journeys full of anguished spiritual and romantic longing. At the heart of this search was Buckley's soaring four octave voice. Even weak material could sound meaningful translated through the power and drama of his singing. In the end, however, Buckley's vocal grace and restless exploration proved too demanding, erratic, and uncategorizable.
Fortunately, Morning Glory captures mostly moments of memorable brilliance, early gems such as “Song Slowly Song,” “Pleasant Street,” and “Once I Was,” and later spellcasting epics like “The River,” “Blue Melody,” and “Sweet Surrender.” Music so audacious and passionate, and unmindful of commerce is too precious to dwell in obscurity.
Ani Difranco, Revelling Rekoning (Righteous Babe)
While Ani Difranco's new double-CD kicks off with some hip shaking Maceo Parker-assisted funk, most of the album's 29 tunes elicit a mood of late night soul searching. As always, Difranco is brutally candid, airing doubts, wounds, fears, and convictions as if speaking to her most intimate friend. But this time, in the many quiet moments offered by Revilling Rekoning, she seems intent on sustaining the brooding and questioning without interruption. Contemplative jazzy settings color most of the tunes and her singing has never sounded more lonesome or troubled. A brave and bold cleansing of the heart. Z