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Listen up!

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

It’s off-season, and the live events are relatively few and far between. Everybody has a CD burner or knows someone who does, blank CDs go for a quarter when bought in bulk (and burning, unlike free downloading, won’t get you sued). So now’s the time to catch up on your CD listening.Here is some guidance to recent releases:Rickie Lee Jones, “The Evening of My Best Day”produced by Jones and David Kalish (V2)I love musicians who emerge out of a seeming career void with a new CD that is relevant, fresh and unexpected. Steve Winwood’s recent “About Time” comes to mind, and now here’s Rickie Lee Jones with the wonderful “The Evening of My Best Day.”The album, Jones’ first of new songs in six years, has all the Rickie Lee trademarks – the breezy, finger-snapping rhythm; the little girl/bad girl voice that sounds as if Jones just woke from a sweet, narcotic dream. But Jones is stretching here, giving overtly political commentary as never before. Claiming inspiration from the current federal administration, Jones, opens the album with the savage “Ugly Man”: “He’ll look at you and tell you lies/He grew up to be like his father.” If there’s any doubt who she’s singing about, go to her Web site (furnitureforthepeople.com), click on the lyrics for the song, and up pops a photo of Georgie W. And if you think Jones is hard on Prez-boy in “Ugly Man,” wait till you hear “Little Mysteries.”In “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act),” Jones asks “What happened in the U.S.A.?” It could be simplistic, but Jones upends expectations by wrapping the song in hand-clapping, gospel-like sounds. “Second Chance,” which closely recalls early Jones in beat and sound, indicts everything from the rich to the violent. But again she makes the song enigmatic by giving cold assurance: “Summertime and everything is chill.”The album takes a turn halfway through, as Jones moves from pointing her finger to offering her shoulder in songs like “A Tree on Allenford” and “A Face in the Crowd.” Jones is well assisted by guitarist Bill Frisell, Los Lobos’ saxophonist Steve Berlin, and producer David Kalish, who last worked with her on 1981’s “Pirates.” Early on, they help Jones go to places funkier and jazzier than she has visited before. When not in commentary mode, the musical setting helps to offer hope with mostly spare, poetic tones.A very good day for Jones.Lyle Lovett, “My Baby Don’t Tolerate”produced by Billy Williams and Lovett (Curb/Lost Highway)After seven years of covering other songwriters, recycling past efforts, recording film soundtracks – and enduring a horrific attack by a bull – I had grown worried about Lyle Lovett’s ability to come up with new material. Perhaps the long wait was a business issue. “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” represents a parting of ways with MCA; it also shows that Lovett hasn’t lost his touch in any way. Lovett covers all the territory he has explored in the past, and then goes a little further. The title track, a darkly comic look at a man grateful for the woman who tells him all he’s doing wrong, is as deep into the blues as Lovett has gone. But Lovett takes the opposite tone in the opening “Cute As a Bug,” a swinging, breezy tale of infatuation which compares his girl to a Volkswagen bug. With its melodic steel guitar and fiddle, “In My Own Mind” is Lovett exploring his beloved Texas roots, and here he assures us he’s been in good spirits: “No rain, just sunshine/Out here in my own mind” goes the oft-repeated chorus. Lovett’s sly comic touch hasn’t diminished. “I’m Going to Wait,” like Lovett’s almighty comic tale “Church,” from 1992’s “Joshua Judges Ruth,” is a twisted take on faith. Here, Lovett starts out mourning his brother gone to heaven. “How I long to be with you,” Lovett croons in his most devout voice. But by the second verse, the singer has decided he can put off his end a while: backed by a jubilant chorus, Lovett rejoices, “I’m going to wait just a little bit longer/Until my Savior he comes for me.” It is noteworthy that Lovett follows “I’m Going to Wait” – and closes the album – with “I’m Going to the Place,” which finds Lovett in another new place: straight-up, praiseful gospel. Baby won’t tolerate another seven-year wait.Rufus Wainwright, “Want One”produced by Marius de Vries (Dreamworks)The son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle is perhaps the most ambitious pop musician of the moment. “Want One,” his third album, is as broad as the heavens, packed with strings, horns and choirs, vocal tracks stacked to the clouds. The opening “Oh What a World” even contains the theme from Ravel’s “Bolero.” Wainwright has a knack for the dramatic, introspective lyric: “Thank you for this bitter knowledge/Guardian angels who left me stranded” from “Go or Go Ahead,” or “Pretty things, so what if I like pretty things” from “Pretty Things.” Combine all that with the continuing theme of human desire – the album’s title could as easily be just “Want,” with “Want, Vol. II” coming soon – and you’ve got the makings of a major effort. Quite possibly way overblown.But what makes “Want One” special is the quieter moments, and the way the big statements are launched from a tinkling piano, strummed guitar or Wainwright’s gentle voice. Check out how the expansive “14th Street” makes a soft landing, courtesy of a banjo code by Wainwright’s mom. Wainwright – working here with Marius de Vries, who has produced Bjrk and Massive Attack – has a rare ear for pop orchestration and melody; he knows how to go big without getting bombastic.Want pop? Get “Want.”Jane’s Addiction, “Strays”produced by produced by Bob Ezrin (Capitol)Perry Farrell and the boys – guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins, joined by newcomer Chris Chaney on bass- are back with the first Jane’s Addiction studio album of new material in 13 years. Which gives me exactly one reason to pay attention to in-your-face, power chord hard rock.On “Strays,” the band remembers to put melody, dynamics and an authentic sense of the bizarre – as opposed to a manufactures, pseudo-bizarreness – into their base of metal, screams and dense production. Singer Farrell seems to be truly unconcerned with how the world takes him – “When was the last time you did anything … Just because?” he sings – and in that, Jane’s Addiction finds the freedom to be their flamboyant, thrashing selves. Not many bands celebrate their own nastiness with this much fun: “This is my lucky day!/I’m just a pick up stray!” exults Farrell.Welcome home, “Strays.”Shelby Lynne, “Identity Crisis”produced by Lynne (Capitol)Shelby Lynne has earned her identity crisis. She won the Grammy for best new artist for her 2000 album “I Am Shelby Lynne” – even though it was her sixth album, and she had been touring for a decade. She followed that breakthrough album, a brilliant creation that echoed the country/r & b mix of “Dusty Springfield in Memphis,” with “Love, Shelby,” a middling move to pop-rock. Both those albums bore the imprint of an outside producer: Bill Botrell on “I Am Shelby Lynne”; Glen Ballard on “Love, Shelby.”On “Identity Crisis,” Lynne sheds the producers and the heavy production for a more direct effect. Lynne wrote all the songs, sang virtually all the parts and plays all the guitar parts. At times, it’s enough. “I Will Stay” is jazzy and romantically moody; the hushed “Telephone” effectively conveys self-doubt. But the best songs are the biggest: the swing-gospel number “10 Rocks,” with a two-person chorus, and “Lonesome,” where Lynne’s multitracked vocals echo both Patsy Cline and Lynne’s own “I Am Shelby Lynne.” Next to those, songs like “One With the Sun” and “Evil Man” scream for more production.This is Shelby Lynne.Van Morrison, “What’s Wrong with This Picture?”produced by Morrison (Blue Note)The reclusive Van Morrison has mused before – “Why Must I Always Explain,” “Cleaning Windows” – about his pop-star persona versus his perception of himself as another Irish poet. But as Morrison marks his debut with the jazz-oriented Blue Note label, he hammers on the issue. Over and over, he casts himself as something other than what fans or the press see him as. “People just assuming things that aren’t true” from “Too Many Myths.” “It takes more than a lifetime just to get to know yourself” from “Meaning of Loneliness.” The final line from the title track: “Just forget about it ‘cos that ain’t me at all.” And that’s only about half of it.Morrison puts it best in “Goldfish Bowl.” He’s not aiming for fame: “I’m not promoting no hit record/And I don’t have no TV show.” A tabloid figure is the last thing he aims to be: “The newspaper barons are the scum of the lowest degree/And they prey on everybody,” he opines. He wants to be a guy who writes, records and performs his modest songs – “Folk with a beat and a little bit of soul” – without the spotlight distorting and dissecting things: “Everything I say is not meant to be set in stone.”It never gets tiring exactly; Morrison doesn’t stoop to whining. Ignore the lyrics and it’s easy to enjoy Van’s soulful voice and his way with a few chords. But he sure does work over this them-versus-me issue. We get the picture.Rodney Crowell, “Fate’s Right Hand”produced by Crowell & Pete Coleman (DMZ/Epic)With 2001’s “The Houston Kid,” a stunner that examined in gory detail his childhood on the wrong side of Houston, Rodney Crowell crossed from country hitmaker to a songwriter in the tradition of fellow Texas natives Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. There’s no going back, not yet anyway. As Crowell says in the press notes to “Fate’s Right Hand,” “Once you’ve chosen the examined life, it’s hard to find a substitute for wanting to go in there and see what’s happening inside yourself.”Where “The Houston Kid” exposed his past, “Fate’s Right Hand” journeys into Crowell’s current inner self. “The Man in Me,” “Time to Go Inward,” “Still Learning Hot to Fly” and “Preachin’ to the Choir” are about the vulnerability, doubt and anger that are the consequences of that tough upbringing. Though Crowell mostly goes beyond spiritual clichs, it’s still a lot of heavy questioning. Ultimately, it’s not quite the revelation or the fun that “The Houston Kid” was. But it’s several good steps above the vacuous stuff of commercial country music. Crowell’s right direction.The Dixie Hummingbirds, “Diamond Jubilation”produced by Larry Campbell (Treasure/Rounder)Sticking around for 75 years is one thing. Pursuing new ground after 75 years is another. With “Diamond Jubilation,” the Dixie Hummingbirds can be commended for both, as well as for creating a potent gospel album.The Hummingbirds – led by Ira Tucker Sr., who has been with the group since 1938 – hook up here with a bunch of relative youngsters: Tony Garnier and producer Larry Campbell from Bob Dylan’s band, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band, and Dr. John. The group also ventures far for material: traditional spirituals “Nobody’s Fault” and “I Bid You Goodnight”; Dylan’s previously unreleased “City of Gold”; “Too Many Troubles” by Nashville couple Julie & Buddy Miller; and a pair of tunes by Campbell. Stylistically, though “Diamond Jubilation” is grounded in glorious six-part harmonies, they take some unexpected turns, giving a zydeco twist to “God’s Radar” and employing string instruments to good effect.75 more years! 4 Way Street, “Pretzel Park”produced by 4 Way Street (Sanctuary Records)The fact that 4 Way Street shares a name with a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album is no coincidence. Philadelphia’s 4 Way Street is also made of four vocally capable singer-songwriters who bring four distinct sensibilities to the music.At its best, like “Change Gonna Come,” “Pretzel Park” has a shimmering folk-rock feel, akin to the Jayhawks’ recent masterpiece, “Rainy Day Music.” At its worst, like “Several Thousand,” the group’s major label debut feels forced, overproduced and awkward, not unlike the more recent CSN&Y efforts. Taken as a whole, “Pretzel Park” is balanced about halfway between those extremes – likable, but not lovable.At the intersection of so-so and good.Jim Lauderdale with Donna the Buffalo, “Wait ’til Spring”produced by Lauderdale and Tim Coats (Dualtone)Sometimes two different elements come together in surprisingly effective ways. Peanut butter and chocolate being the best example. (And have you tried the new, limited edition Honey Roasted Reese’s Cup? Whoa!)Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale and New York roots jam-band Donna the Buffalo probably won’t last as long as the venerable Reese’s. But with “Wait ’til Spring,” the teaming has at least one shining moment. Lauderdale provides the country-leaning songs and lead vocals; Donna the Buffalo adds the roots-rock backing. It’s a minor pleasure, with a rough, underproduced feel. But the Byrds-like “That’s Not the Way it Works” and the Band-ish “This World is Getting Mean” make this a better teaming than, say, Intrawest and Snowmass Village.Lauderdale’s a good addition to the herd.Various artists, “Soul Tribute to the Beatles,” (Vanguard); “Just Because I’m a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton” (Sugar Hill); “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers,” produced by Carl Jackson (Universal South); “Exile on Blues Street,” produced by Randy Lebbe (Telarc); “Vanthology: A Tribute to Van Morrison,” produced by Jon Tiven (Evidence)A conclusion I have come to after listening to dozens of these now ubiquitous tribute albums, is that it’s the singers, not the songs. The good ones are always those loaded with masterful artists putting their stamp on the song. The ones that have less-distinctive singers relying on the strength of the material are invariably dull. Here’s more proof.”Soul Tribute to the Beatles” is head and shoulders above most tributes. Yes, there is the quality of the original, but the album’s appeal is how the soul greats – Marvin Gaye (“Yesterday”), Aretha Franklin (“Let It Be”), Otis Redding (“Day Tripper”) and Ike & Tina Turner (“Come Together”) – rise to, often above, the material. “Soul Tribute” is an actual compilation – the songs are taken from various prior albums and not recorded contemporaneously – so it’s got an unfair advantage. It’s a great collection.”Just Because I’m a Woman,” featuring all new recordings, likewise benefits from using the cream of the female crop. “9 to 5” is a goofy song from a goofier movie, but Alison Krauss takes any corniness out and gives it a worthy go. Also paying tribute by reinterpreting Parton’s work are Emmylou Harris (“To Daddy”), Norah Jones (“The Grass Is Blue”), Me-shell N’degocello (“Two Doors Down”) and Melissa Etheridge (whose “I Will Always Love You” is scaled down a few steps from Whitney Houston’s version, but could still come down a notch). And for those who see Parton as akin to a cartoon character, check out the depths of writing in “The Seeker” (handled with a jazzy touch here by Shelby Lynne) and “Little Sparrow” (by Kasey Chambers).Brothers Ira and Charlie Louvin were kings of early-country songwriting. Known first for their gospel songs, the Louvins later showed a particular knack for those weepy, romance-gone-bad tunes. Here, top singers are partnered together to pay tribute: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on “My Baby’s Gone,” Vince Gill and Terri Clark on “I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me,” James Taylor and Alison Krauss on “How’s the World Treating You.” The album concludes with three gospel tunes, including Pam Tillis & Johnny Cash doing “Keep Your Eye on Jesus. “Vanthology” lacks the imagination, variety of approaches and distinctive voices of the other two albums. The album uses one band to back the singers, giving all the tracks a similar feel. It’s hard to argue with the material, but the result is more a decent cover project than a reimagining of the work.”Exile on Blues Street” is slightly better, giving the singers – Tab Benoit and Deborah Coleman among them – looser reins to play with the material. But there are moments like Andrea Re’s weak, unimaginative take on “Tumbling Dice” and a sloppy “Rocks Off” by Jimmy Thackery. Not to mention that the Rolling Stones’ original “Exile on Main Street” had an incomparable feel throughout that a multi-artist tribute can’t hope to match.”Soul Tribute to the Beatles,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin'”: Triumphant tributes.”Vanthology,” “Exile on Blues Street”: Stick to the original.


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