Spring Reviews


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.

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.

Angels And
(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.

Blues Dream (Nonsuch)

Guitarist Bill
Frissell, through albums such as Nashville (1997), Gone, Just Like A
(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.

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.

New Orbit
(Thirsty Ear)

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.

Morning Glory:
The Tim Buckley Anthology
(Elektra Traditions/Rhino)

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.

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.

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.

, 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