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

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

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.

The disc is structured as one long love letter composed of kisses and hugs to fans, friends, loved ones and, most of all, herself. It serves as a fine companion piece to her autobiography, Don't Block the Blessings. The CD even ends with a track called "Don't Block the Blessings," which makes for a satisfyingly cathartic coda.

Still, as good as Flame is, it's only part of the LaBelle experience. Watching her whoop it up in concert ought to clue you in to the bigger picture -- either that, or jolt you right out of your seat. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Patti LaBelle performs at 8 p.m. Friday, November 7, at the Arena Theatre.

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth

Buddy Miller
Poison Love

Robbie Fulks's second release for Chicago's "insurgent country" label, Bloodshot Records, is built on the wonderful hard-country sound of Missouri's legendary roots outfit the Skeletons, who come off here like something approaching the world's greatest country band. What makes South Mouth truly special, though, is Fulks's generally fine songwriting. I say "generally" because some of Fulks's offerings are admittedly slight. All but ready for covering by the lamest-hatted hunk, "Good-bye Good-Lookin' " and "Dirty-Mouthed Flo" sound like they could be among the "dumb-ass songs" that Fulks himself slams in the too-easy, self-congratulating, anti-Nashville anthem "Fuck This Town."

Still, when he's on his game, Fulks is hard to beat. His Louvin Brothersstyled "South Richmond Girl" is a hard-working husband/cheating-wife murder ballad that winds up destroying not only the man on death row but his grown son -- the latter crying on the other side of the bars. "Forgotten But Not Gone" is a quavering testament to lost love that sounds like a newly discovered Jack Greene masterpiece, and the fragile, stripped-down "You Wouldn't Do That to Me" is an attempt at self-denial so exquisite that George Jones should record it ASAP. Even Fulks's more "dumb-ass" moments ("I'm a sucker for low-cut tops" he tells one woman -- as if that will win her heart) are delivered with such a twang-solid, honky-tonk backing that most objections fly immediately away on pedal-steel wings.(PPP 1/2)

Recorded on the original alternative country label, Oakland's HighTone Records, Buddy Miller's sophomore effort offers a less tradition-bound version of great country music than Fulks's -- which simply means that it rocks as hard as it twangs. Miller's phrasing, both lyrically and vocally, owes much to another country-rock rebel, Steve Earle (who duets with Miller on the title cut, a version of the 1951 Johnnie and Jack hit), and the musicians that back Miller here often sound as if Earle's own Dukes had unplugged and added a fiddle.

But where Earle is as likely to place his story songs in a wider context of class inequality, Miller is generally content to write with wisdom and craft about love's unex-pected joys and its confused aftermaths. When Miller paces a lonely shore in "Draggin' the River," his metaphor captures the messy, pain-in-the-gut feeling that's usually missing in even the best heartbreak songs. On the other hand, when he joins voices with his wife, Judy, on "Love Snuck Up," he's smart enough to know that metaphor is unnecessary; the sheer, breathless joy of their harmonies says it all. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Busta Rhymes
When Disaster Strikes...

If Busta Rhymes were ever in the running to play a comic-book villain, it would most certainly be the Riddler. Can't you just imagine this maniacal hip-hopper prancing about, twirling a Plexiglas cane, a big, flashing question-mark on the front of his derby?

With the zest-ridden urgency of a jester searching for his royal court, Busta Rhymes has unleashed another arsenal of bombastic verbal twisters on When Disaster Strikes..., dispatching hard-core flights-of-fancy that can only be described as beyond whimsical. The in-your-face bravado of his 1996 debut, The Coming, is here, though it's occasionally toned down in favor of a few more experimental pitches. On the title track, for instance, Busta delivers a verbal flow similar to what might have resulted if George Jessel had turned to rapping.

Throughout Disaster, Busta manages to sound off in ways both capricious and threatening, his idle boasts often morphing into moments of pure goofiness. While Busta goes off on his rants, the producers successfully transform the music into a larger-than-life force all its own. D.J. Scratch's ass-blasting beats match Busta's madcap form to a T, and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs lends his signature overachieving touch to the mix with "The Body Rock." Busta himself even lays down a couple of choice backing tracks, including "Turn It Up," a wild-and-woolly number that samples Al Green's "Love and Happiness," and the obligatory I'm-down-with-my-homies anthem, "There's Not a Problem My Squad Can't Fix."

All boasting aside, Busta Rhymes celebrates a trait that most rappers are too self-absorbed to acknowledge: giddy, unchecked enthusiasm. Even when he's supposed to be playing the hard guy, nothing, it seems, can stop Busta from bouncing off the walls. He may insist he's a street-tough force to be reckoned with, but deep down, he's Silly Putty. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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