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.

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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.  

And while Sting, Sheryl Crow, Mark Knopfler and Travis Tritt are enlisted in the effort to make Waylon relevant, Jennings returns the favor by dueting with one of his own musical forebears, Carl Smith, on a delightfully woozy take of Welch's "Untitled Waltz." But the ultimate point of Closing in on the Fire is that Jennings himself still has the fire, and really doesn't need much help to stoke it up. Given a sympathetic environment, he's made a record that proves how, time and again, ol' Waylon can be made new again by merely exercising the instincts that make him an American musical master. (***)

-- Rob Patterson

Freddy Cole
Love Makes the Changes
Fantasy Records

That Freddy Cole would be compared to his brother Nat "King" Cole was a foregone conclusion the moment Freddy became a jazz singer and pianist. Those comparisons to his older brother are not without merit: You can hear a bit of Nat in Freddy's voice, though at 66, his voice is grittier than Nat's ever was. Freddy's style is similar to Nat's in his heyday -- the later '40s/early '50s. Then there are the ballads, apparently the forte of the Cole family, though Freddy is more likely to sing "If I Had Your Love" than "Unforgettable."

While Cole has not achieved the same fame as his older brother -- an unreasonable goal for any singer -- he is both a respected and important jazz voice. His credentials are solid (he studied at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music and has penned a few jazz standards) and his music is consistently high-caliber. Often, the best thing about a new Freddy Cole release (aside from listening to it, of course) is the confidence that the music will be good, very good.

Such is the case with Love Makes the Changes, a collection of mostly ballads and bluesy mid-tempo standards that displays Cole in typically solid form. Though an accomplished pianist, Cole hands the piano-playing to the underrated Cedar Walton, who provides some pleasant surprises. He's also joined by Grover Washington Jr., whose identifiable sound on the title track and "The Right to Love" blends perfectly with Cole's voice. A gifted interpreter, Cole lends a certain innocence to the Oscar Brown classic "Brother Where Are You?" and even gives Billy Joel's schmaltzy "Just the Way You Are" a respectable workout. Throughout, Cole's voice is evocative and smooth, yet strong, and the performances are inspired.

An excellent release, Love Makes the Changes reminds us there aren't many things in this life better than listening to an old jazz pro, particularly when he's Freddy Cole. (**** 1/2)

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Jimmie Vaughan
Out There

Tone, subtlety and nuance -- that's the stuff that distinguishes Jimmie Vaughan from his better known brother, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, they serve as icons of the two opposing schools of modern blues-rock guitar: the showboating, fingers-of-fire, machine-gun-spray approach (Stevie), and the understated, make-every-note-count school (Jimmie). For the record, I prefer the latter, and even Stevie Ray seemed to be moving in that direction in his last Austin show, just a few months before he died -- perhaps one result of sobriety?

Jimmie's restraint means that it takes a couple of listens for Out There to sink in, but it's well worth the patience. And in these days, when scores of young players seem to be trying to outdo each other (and Stevie) by showing how much they can play, Jimmie demonstrates the merits of showing how little he can play, even though Out There is heavily laced with solos. The elder Vaughan brother understands the power of the music between the notes, which can be even more stunning than a fiery spray of hot riffs.

Out There follows in the style of Strange Pleasures, Vaughan's 1993 solo debut. Once again, his approach is blue-eyed soul, as much rhythm as blues (though the sound of this record is probably best described as blues and rhythm rather than R&B). It's Texas thing, doncha know, like the great T-Bone Walker.

The sensual pleasures of this slant may be best articulated on "The Ironic Twist," an instrumental track that falls somewhere between Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" and Freddie King's "Hideaway" -- sassy, sexy and boozy Texas club music. If this were 30 years ago, every band in the Lone Star state would be learning this number for their break song. The other revelation here is also a wordless wonder: the sparse acoustic number "Little Son, Big Sun," which closes the affair with a Son House-style slice of trad-blues funk.  

Which isn't to say that Vaughan is better when he's playing than when he's singing, because this once reticent vocalist is finding his zone. He sounds positively jubilant on the Nile Rodgers-written and -produced "Like a King," yet with the same delicious restraint displayed by his picking. He gets downright nasty on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Motor Head Baby," and even pulls off a romantic talking blues on "Positively Meant to Be." One of the cool things about Out There is hearing how Vaughan's confidence as a frontman has grown.

This is a record probably best savored sometime after last call, sitting at home with a slight buzz, woozy and in the groove but not quite ready to sleep. It's the sound of a master bluesman channeling the dream world, and if you can find the time, place and atmosphere to let this disc sink in, you will not be disappointed. (****)

-- Rob Patterson

Ben Neil

Neil is player and inventor of the mutantrumpet, a three-belled, six-valved horn that can blend various real- and computer-generated sounds via its MIDI interface, producing a unique tone that's part human breath and part machine. The instrument has an incredible range -- it can play open and muted sounds at the same time -- and the MIDI interface allows Neil to sample a phrase and play along with himself, a technique that could open infinite avenues of expression to an adventurous player.

On Goldbug, however, most of Neil's trumpet work consists of simple, repeated phrases that are all but buried under a flurry of industrial-strength jungle beats. Last year, Neil toured clubs with DJ Spooky, who collaborates here on production, to create an offering that is decidedly more dance than jazz. Even in the world of acid jazz, where beats often dominate the free-flowing instrumental passages, most musicians do their best to cut through the electronic clutter and play something that will engage the listeners' emotions, as well as their feet.

But alas, that's not the case here. For the most part, Neil's mutantrumpet lines are simplistic, repetitive and -- let's face it -- boring. "Syntonic," "Blue Maroon" (with its hint of samba) and the title track work best, the mutantrumpet floating in and out of the aural field like some fragment of tune you've never heard but which somehow feels familiar. Still, most of the tracks on Goldbug sound suspiciously like generic alt-rock instrumentals. After all, if you're going to go to all the trouble to invent an instrument and give it a provocative name, why waste it on such formulaic filler? (**)

-- J. Poet

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

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