Celebrity Skin

Courtney Love has proven over and again that she is capable of polarizing opinion like few female pop-culture icons can. She says what she thinks and rails on about what she feels, and that's what makes her perpetually unsafe. Hell, most people have a hard time doing as much in their everyday lives, and they're not hounded by paparazzi day in and day out.

But don't feel sorry for poor Courtney; she's had plenty to keep her distracted from the reality of being a grunge martyr's superstar widow. Delayed for a couple of years while she parlayed her Madonna-in-tatters shtick into a respectable film career, Celebrity Skin is more coherent than one might have expected, considering that co-high-profile co-writers like Billy Corgan were brought in to help out. With the urgency of its breakthrough predecessor, Live Through This, but less crippled by anger, Celebrity Skin is the release nobody expected Hole to make: a truly great power-pop album. Indeed, Ms. Love and Company are far less abrasive in their post-Hollywood incarnation. Multi-tracked harmonies and the occasional string arrangement bathe Love's remarkably restrained vocals, lending a delicate sheen to the album's uncluttered guitar attack and breezy melodies. As if the peppy girl-group insinuations in the music weren't enough, ex-Go-Go Charlotte Caffey co-wrote a track on Celebrity Skin ("Reasons to Be Beautiful").

Still, Love can affect a decent sneer every now and then, even when attacking the fattest of targets -- the celebrity mill/entertainment machine. She chooses her battles carefully, injecting the material with tangible tinges of both sadness and sympathy. Without a doubt, the album's wrenching centerpiece is "Reasons to Be Beautiful," on which Love alters the Neil Young refrain quoted in husband Kurt Cobain's suicide note to say, "It's better to rise than fade away," lamenting that her "blossom's dead." It's almost unbearable to hear Love's grief over her marriage's stormy and very public history, as she alternately blames herself and lashes out at the one who left her behind.

But what makes Hole a real band and not just Love's venting vehicle is the rhythm section: Drummer Patty Schemel is simply one of the best drummers in rock and roll, and the way in which she and bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur work for and against each other gives the music undeniable weight without crowding out everything else. On Celebrity Skin's closing number, "Petals," Auf Der Maur's fuzzed-out bass provides just the right amount of grinding turbulence to flesh out the verse's acoustic vibe. But not before it's all consumed by a symphonic surge of guitars and synthesizers, providing one of the most powerful moments on a release loaded down with them. (**** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Vince Gill
The Key

If any artist has the ability to shake Nashville out of its sorry state of affairs, it's Vince Gill. One of the most respected talents in Music City, he's won countless awards, and his last eight releases have gone either platinum or multiplatinum. In light of all that success, you could argue that Gill is making a brave statement with the decidedly retro-sounding The Key. It's an album steeped in tradition, filled to the brim with all manner of "real" country, reminding those who might have forgotten that this is a genre with roots that run firm and deep.

Very few contemporary country artists have the ability to pull off such a task with this much confidence and ease. But not only is Gill the man for the job, he pulls it off in spades. The Key covers an amazing amount of ground, illustrating the wide diversity of the sounds country can and has embraced -- from bluegrass to folk to swing to honky-tonk. Yet none of it sounds forced; as with the best music of its kind, it comes from the heart and connects with the listener on an emotional level.

Never one to hog the spotlight -- even on his own releases -- Gill is joined on The Key by some of the finest female voices in country today. Ten of the CD's 13 tracks feature backing vocals from the likes of Alison Krauss, Shelby Lynn, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans and newcomer Sonya Isaacs. There's also the fabulous duet with Patty Loveless, "My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man," which resonates like the finest work of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Indeed, there are many high points on The Key, not the least of which is the title track, a deeply felt tribute to Gill's recently deceased father. There's the vintage Nashville Sound of "If You Ever Have Forever in Mind," featuring a tasteful piano turn from Pig Robbins. Bob Wills gets his just due on the spirited western-swing homage, "I'll Take Texas."

All said and done, The Key's central message is delivered in the title of a finely drawn barroom weeper, "Kindly Keep It Country." Let's hope Nashville is listening. (****)

-- Jim Caliguiri

Junior Brown
Long Walk Back

R.L. Burnside
Come On In
Fat Possum/Epitaph

They're guitar heroes from different sides of the same tracks: Junior Brown's a born-again Texan best known for his guit-steel (part regular electric guitar, part steel guitar) contraption and his love for Ernest Tubb and Jesus H. Christ; R.L. Burnside is a 72-year-old Mississippi guitarist who got his blues pure and uncut from Fred McDowell, then spent his life tending farm on the Delta till some white boys "discovered" him. Brown and Burnside wouldn't know each other if they met on the stage at the House of Blues, and probably wouldn't care for each other -- Junior hates the smell of liquor on any man's breath, while R.L. inhales what he can't swallow.

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