So while the new A Long Way Home may not qualify as a high point, it's still a fine Yoakam release. Singer and band have attained a well-oiled professionalism; the familiar tricks and Yoakam's heartbroken whine remain a patented delight. As you'd expect, he delivers lots of sadness, and a full measure of drama on everything from stone-cold weepers to flat-out rootsy rockers. Hints of bluegrass inform "Traveler's Lantern" and the title track. And as if to bring it all back home, the album is topped off with Dwight doing Elvis on "Maybe You Like It, Maybe You Don't," which sounds as if it could be a lost Sun sessions outtake. As always, Yoakam taps the spirit of genuine C&W greatness.

Alas, Will Sing for Food -- which finds 13 artists covering Yoakam songs to benefit the homeless -- is a different matter. Tribute albums are far too overdone to matter much anymore, and strangely, this one is less a tribute to the songs than to the artist himself. That's because most of the tracks have nothing on their original counterparts, making it that much more apparent what a sharp stylist Yoakam is. Only Bonnie Bramlett-Sheridan (half of the now sadly forgotten Delaney and Bonnie) brings anything different to the table; her take on "What I Don't Know" is deep-fried in the juices of Memphis R&B, and sung with a brassy, unbridled verve. On a similar, if somewhat lesser, note, Tim O'Brien brings an ethereal mountain-music feel to "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere" and Pete Droge gives "One Thousand Miles" a cool rockist slant.

Otherwise, only the young Austin band Reckless Kelly manages to match Yoakam's trademark panache. Meanwhile, otherwise vital artists such as David Ball, Kim Richey (who is backed here by Mandy Barnett on "Near You"), the Lonesome Strangers and Gillian Welch offer nothing revelatory nor all that listenable. And that's not much of a tribute at all. A Long Way Home (*** 1/2); Will Work for Food (** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

The Connells
Still Life

By most accounts, Ring was supposed to be the Connells' last gasp after almost a decade as the South's second-string R.E.M. That was five years ago. And by now, the durable North Carolina outfit's repeated claims of inevitable disbandment are about as believable as the O.J. verdict. That's fine with the quintet's fans, many of whom reside an ocean away.

Founded back in 1984 by brothers David and Mike Connell, the Connells have reaped a fair share of critical praise, but their brainy, unimposing formula has also been ignored, dismissed and largely taken for granted. Lately, such professional heartbreaks have been compounded by a pair of personal setbacks: Last year, lead singer Doug MacMillan required surgery for an intestinal ailment (he has since fully recovered); and, most recently, bassist David Connell lost his wife to a long illness.

But unlike 1996, with its dreary, encumbered Weird Food and Devastation CD and equally lifeless tour, 1998 finds the Connells in a decidedly upbeat mindset. And to celebrate, they've just uncorked Still Life, album number seven of lyrically obtuse, fundamentally catchy, diametrically durable folk-and-rock-leaning pop -- and not a live album or greatest hits collection in the lot. But then, the closest the group has come to a hit was " '74'75," which caught on huge in Europe some two years after its release on Ring. Boasting perhaps the band's most stunning melody line in a career full of them, and lyrics furbished with colorful, if cryptic, scrapbook remembrances, the song might have fared better here if it hadn't been forced to compete with the Singles soundtrack, among other things Seattle.

But today, with grunge's threat pretty much out of the way and craftier pop acts logging hits (think Semisonic, Fastball), the door may have opened a crack for the Connells. And, as with all the group's albums since its frenzied 1986 debut, Darker Days, Still Life abounds with hooks of the sort you'd have to be under sedation not to appreciate.

Sharp craftsmanship dominates Still Life, from the signature Connells' ascending-descending chord progression and bulky Hammond B-3 enhancement of the leadoff "Dull, Brown and Gray" (a bracing, minor-key lament plopped, oddly enough, in a hazy Civil War-era dreamscape) to the bouncy, infectious "Curly's Train" (about a near brush with disaster on a Scottish auto-train) to the no-frills college rock and canny self-analysis of "The Leper" and "Still Life." Particularly poignant is the latter, with a piano intro seemingly on loan from Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and a memorable chorus that hinges on the lucid assertion, "This still life has its virtues / 'Cause everything in motion leaves or is just left behind" -- which guitarist/songwriter Mike Connell insists came to him in his sleep.

As sharp-witted and quality-minded as ever, the Connells seem unable to make a lousy album, even if they haven't made a truly great one since, well, Ring. But this time around, the group is actually anticipating Still Life's follow-up. Self-proclaimed career pessimists, the Connells finally may be realizing that a little positive thinking can go a long way. Let's just hope the bank is en route this time. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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