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Neil Diamond
Tennessee Moon
Columbia

If chest hair could sing, you can almost bet it would sound like Neil Diamond. Thirty years and 100 million albums after his humble beginnings as a folkie pop singer/songwriter, Diamond finds himself orbiting the earth in a stratosphere of the mega-celebrity, representing our planet as a lascivious crooner who insists there is no force as powerful as the one that attracts a woman to a man.

So when Diamond decides to return to his roots, he has quite a ways to travel. Tennessee Moon marks his second attempt in three years to get back to basics. After 1994's disappointing collection of cover tunes, Songs from the Brill Building, Diamond has changed his strategy. Delivering no less than 18 originals, Tennessee Moon aims to prove that Diamond needs no one else to show that he is -- at heart -- a simple, honest, everyday guy.

What we get is easily the artist's best work since 1980's multiplatinum Jazz Singer soundtrack. The CD succeeds because Diamond is able to neutralize his trademark schmaltz with smart and affecting songwriting. Instead of sounding like a condescending superstar trying to cash in on a foreign musical idiom, Diamond's country-tinged performances are solid and simple on the title track, "Blue Highway" (a duet with Chet Atkins) and the poppish "Gold Don't Rust." And while Diamond doesn't abandon his unique brand of impossibly romantic ballads altogether, he comes back to earth often enough to make those excursions seem like a welcome deviation. Diamond's remake of "Kentucky Woman" and his duet with Waylon Jennings, "One Good Love," aren't likely to earn him brownie points with country purists, but they do show effort, taste and sincerity from a man who could have bagged this gig and headed for the golf course a long time ago. -- Gerard Choucroun

Los Lobos
Colossal Head
Warner Bros.

What's made Los Lobos so intriguing over the years has been their inclination to wander unselfishly between cultures, distributing the wealth of what they discover on their border crossings to anyone willing to listen. But for all Los Lobos' experimental acumen, the band has always been most enjoyable when it's kept its pop sensibilities intact. That truth applies to the group's most successful forays into no-nonsense roots rock (How Will the Wolf Survive?, The Neighborhood), Mexican folk music (...And a Time to Dance) and semi-avant-garde atmospherics (Kiko). Whether ripping into a bluesy rocker, adding a fresh edge to a vintage cover or strapping on an accordion in the name of tradition, the band has always left a shred of something ringing in your ears, whether it be an irresistible chorus, a wrenching vocal or a memorable guitar lick copped from an unlikely source.

For Colossal Head, Los Lobos' first batch of new material in four years, the group has chosen an esoteric route somewhat similar to that of 1992's Kiko. On that earlier release, producer Mitchell Froom's scrambled aural palette would have spelled disaster had it not been for the fact that the band didn't lose sight of the songs, which were uniformly strong. Froom is back for Colossal Head, and as happened with Kiko, he encourages the guys to toy with a plethora of styles, including blues-shaded rock, Latino funk/swing hybrids, New Age-y soul and much more -- the bulk of it undefinable.

But the problem with Colossal Head is the execution. It's thin on melody, and few of the ideas hold their grip past an initial display of quirky shades and textures. It makes you long for the days when Los Lobos' idea of stirring up the pot was a little more cut and dried -- a little rock and roll here, a little barrio blues there, some norte–a tossed in for good measure. Disjointed and unsatisfying, Colossal Head is all head and no heart. When the recipe for diversity gets this cluttered, it's a good time for a band to think about retracing its steps. -- Hobart Rowland

Ceili's Muse
The Dark Lady
Ceili's Muse

With little attention from the local media, the trad-Celtic folkies in Ceili's Muse have garnered praise from Nebraska to Ireland for their exuberant yet respectful renderings of the sounds and spirit of the Emerald Isle. And The Dark Lady, the group's third self-produced CD, demonstrates that Ceili's Muse is as much at home -- and as much fun -- in the studio as they are on-stage. Maggie Drennon's soaring soprano trades solos with Melanie O'Sullivan's throaty, sunlight-through-whiskey voice to fit the mood of the lyrics of the moment.

Providing the thermal lift to propel these flights of Irish fancy are the able hands of bassist Chuck Ivy and poly-string virtuoso Anders Johansson, although crowd pleasers such as Drennon and O'Sullivan's a cappella rendering of "Don't Get Married, Girls" showcase the colleens' ability to fly just fine on their own. On less whimsical numbers, the band's instrumental ability to create a mood with fiddle, banjo, mandolin and the heartbeat pounding of the bodhran sets the stage for powerful, emotional lyrics. The rebel ballad "Arthur McBride" -- a tune banned for more than 100 years by the British, who made singing the song a capital offense -- shows the inherent foolishness of the explicit-lyrics fanatics, for there are few rap or metal songs more bloodthirsty (and none more beautiful) than these ancient words of unrepentant rebellion, which are forged by Drennon's high, clear voice into a deadly weapon with a blade of unbreakable glass.

-- Jim Sherman

 
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