Mo Thugs Family
Mo Thugs Family Scriptures Chapter II: Family Reunion
Mo Thugs/Relativity

There's a groove of monotony that one never gets out of when listening to the mouthful of words that is Mo Thugs Family Scriptures Chapter II: Family Reunion. This is the second hodgepodge of street odes, urban melodies and all things ghettoistic from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's offshoot label, Mo Thugs. Krayzie, Layzie, Flesh-N- and the rest of those nutty Bone boys have rounded up some more talent for their roster on this sophomore effort, including a quintet of R&B-singing brothers called MT5, and a hard-as-press-on-nails female rapper known as Thug Queen. They even have a white rapper in their crew, affectionately named Powder.

What the album lacks is organization, coherence and oomph. Sure, most of the artists all appear on a few tracks together, but it makes the album sound like a cast recording of a Broadway musical about the inner city. So many artists and producers whiz by that the album fails to hook the listener.

A couple of songs register long enough to make blips on the radar screen: The album's first single, the annoyingly titled "All Good," has a folksy rhythm and contains nice vocals from Aaliyah sound-alike Felecia; and "U Don't Own Me," featuring girl-duo Potion, has a slinky, booty-call mindset to it.

The effect might be different if we heard them each, individually, on their own albums. Having them all cross-pollinate musically to promote brotherhood and fraternity was a good idea, but sooner or later, like any offspring, they're gonna have to find their own voices and leave the damn house. (**)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Not many artists can leave their fans waiting six years for a new release and expect them still to care. Lucinda Williams is that kind of artist, though, and thankfully, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road delivers in ways that only the work of an exceptional songwriter can.

The folk-rock and country blues of this album feel of a piece with her past work -- no small feat, considering the many hands involved with the album's production. Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, Rick Rubin, ex-E Street Band keyboard player Roy Bittan, Jim Scott and even Lucinda herself garner co-producer credit.

But everything flows smoothly as Williams conjures rural life in the South, capturing everyday events with startling clarity. In fact, the images on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road are a bit more pointed, and the melodies hang longer in the night, than in anything she has come up with previously.

All the songs link to her past in some way. "Drunken Angel," an ode to legendary Austin songwriter Blaze Foley, exposes both his tortured soul and her heartfelt grief at his passing. There are also tunes named after towns from the South -- "Jackson," "Greenville" and "St. Charles" -- and though the subject of each is very different, they each connect to a memory from her childhood that is sure to touch the listener as well. And the title track and "Metal Firecracker" are Williams at her storytelling best: cinematic masterpieces carried off with a minimum of words and the utmost passion. Throughout, Williams sounds convincingly self-assured, sexy, frail and distressed -- characteristics she has always exuded, but never with this much power or charm. (****) -- Jim Caligiuri

Waylon Jennings
Closing in on the Fire
Ark 21

Listening to the new album by Waylon Jennings on the rock label Ark 21 is akin to watching the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. Just as Rick Rubin's hipster American Recordings revived Johnny Cash's career, Ark 21 (run by Sting's manager, Miles Copeland) is polishing up ol' Waylon and trotting out this country warhorse before the hipster public.

Of course, the secret is that Cash and Jennings have been making significant music all along (admittedly with some ups and downs); they hung on even as Nashville's Music Row did its level best to ignore the country-music legacy they still revered. Now, though, we have Cash singing Beck songs and cutting tracks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Jennings doing a Sting song with Sheryl Crow. But if that's what it takes to coax good work from these venerable artists, so be it.

The cool thing is that "She's Too Good for Me," Waylon's cut with Crow and Sting, is actually the least important moment on Closing in on the Fire. It's an interesting bit of hard-boiled Southern soul-rock, but when Jennings follows with his own fat 'n' juicy slice of country funk, "Back Home (Where I Come From)," it's clear he doesn't need pop-rock assistance to remain vital. So though this disc also offers a souped-up version of the Jagger/Richards chestnut "No Expectations," the tunes that really cook are the new ones from Waylon's pen, and those from smart writers like Kevin Welch and Austin's Kimmie Rhodes and Kelly Willis. With a seasoned cadre of Nashville country rockers providing rich and swampy instrumental backing, the best moments are musical Americana, rife with a heartland consciousness we are in danger of losing in this digital age.

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