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Steve Earle
El Corazon
Warner Bros.

When the country music establishment turned its back on Steve Earle, a reformed junkie and unrehabilitated loudmouth, Earle turned his back on the country music establishment. For that reason and many others, you will in all likelihood never hear selections from El Corazon on country radio -- and that's a pisser, because the CD showcases everything that's right about American roots music.

The lead track, "Christmas in Washington," sounds like the kind of ballad that was once John Prine's trademark, but the words are pure Earle: As he watches politicians running in place like mindless gerbils, he recounts his own failings even as he wishes for the return of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and anyone else with the nerve to demand something better from their supposed leaders. That's followed by "Taneytown," a remarkable narrative about murder, lynching and the impossibility of justice that's powered by a Neil Young riff, and ten more songs that are just as good (and in several cases even better) as the material heard on I Feel Alright, Earle's wonderful 1996 return to the major-label wars.

There are echoes of various inspirations here: "Telephone Road" lopes along Springsteen-style, "You Know the Rest" is the sort of slangy, mock-historical ditty that Dylan used to deliver before he lost his sense of humor and his will to live and "I Still Carry You Around" recalls Bill Monroe by virtue of a bluegrass arrangement and the presence of guest star Del McCoury. But what's best about El Corazon are the presence of songs such as "Poison Lovers," a gorgeous duet with Siobhan Kennedy, and "Here I Am," a self-mythologizing country rocker (with the accent on rock). These are tunes whose singularity ensures that they will sound great long after Earle is dust.

The tale of the artist underappreciated in his own time is a familiar one, and Earle, a man whose voice frequently mixes impudence, anger and regret into an aural Molotov cocktail, would likely have little patience for it. But while interchangeable pretty boys in $200 hats croon hackneyed rhymes against musical backdrops with all the country credibility of George Bush, Earle is quietly adding another heartfelt chapter to this nation's musical heritage. And it would be nice if someone noticed. (**** 1/2)

-- Michael Roberts

Various Artists
We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute
Royalty

If the Stooges were the godfathers of punk, then Iggy Pop was their Sonny Corleone. Vital, quick-tempered and frothing at the mouth with pure vitriol, Pop was the perfect depiction of a life careening out of control, a version of evil way scarier than Marilyn Manson -- and one that required way less makeup.

While Pop has more charisma and "fuck you" attitude than most performers can ever hope to have, he has mellowed somewhat in order to survive. So it sort of makes sense that proceeds from We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute are going to LIFEbeat, an AIDS charity. The artists assembled here flaunt the tremendous influence the Iggster and his Stooges have had on rock; they're bands that have benefited the most from Pop's clearing the path first. Iggy's illegitimate stepchildren Joey Ramone and Joan Jett, New York punks D Generation and NY Loose and post-grunge devotees of the "Search and Destroy" lifestyle (Monster Magnet, the Misfits, 7 Year Bitch) are all here, showing their support with interpretations of their favorite Iggy tunes. Meanwhile, younger, poppier outfits such as Sugar Ray and Nada Surf dutifully put in performances with the necessary speed and thrust, harnessing the songs' raw energy and turning it into something all their own. The postmodern reading of "Loose" by queer-core punk act Pansy Division is of particular note. They knew full well the effect the classic line "Stick it deep inside deep / 'Cause I'm loose" can have on a prudish populace, especially coming from a gay band. As a result, Pop's music never sounded so raunchy or so funny.

Of course, tribute collections always have a few clunkers. Here it's the Red Hot Chili Peppers' limp version of "Search and Destroy," which is almost as embarrassing as four naked idiots wearing socks over their genitals. And a quick suggestion to Blanks 77: A more fitting tribute to the Iggster would be breaking up. (***)

-- David Simutis

Patti LaBelle
Flame
MCA

At 52, Patti LaBelle has finally acknowledged what many R&B divas in her position have yet to confront: old age. And as you'd expect, she's confronting it gracefully, knowing full well that she doesn't have to resort to eye-grabbing tactics to win over listeners -- she's already got plenty of those, thank you.

It would therefore be stupid for fans to take a swat at LaBelle's latest CD, Flame, merely because it doesn't represent her wilder and more outrageous side. That said, Flame is the purest LaBelle yet. With an arsenal of top-notch producers such as Gerald Levert, David Foster and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at her disposal, LaBelle incorporates most elements of contemporary black music -- from gospel to old-school R&B to Teddy Rileyinspired new-jack soul -- and sweetens it with that beautiful, hellacious voice of hers.

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