B.B. King
Blues on the Bayou

More than any other performer, B.B. King has personified modern blues. At home and abroad, people of all (or no) musical interests can readily identify the genre's defining superstar. Since first recording in 1949, he has won more Grammys, been given more honorary degrees and awards, and probably made appearances on television and radio more often than any other blues artist. His rich voice and stingingly sweet single-note guitar licks are instantly recognizable. He's become an icon, an institution -- and an industry.

Now 73, King has spent recent years in a commercially successful but artistically limited mode, issuing retrospective recordings and making or soliciting guest appearances on various projects while continuing to tour extensively. In 1997, he cashed in with his best-selling album ever, Deuces Wild, which paired him with a succession of younger pop stars, but lacked the soul-wrenching intensity of his best work. Blues on the Bayou, King's first studio recording in almost 15 years to fully use his own touring band, eloquently reasserts his special genius.

Recorded in four days at Dockside Studio in South Louisiana, Blues on the Bayou is King's debut as self-producer, and perhaps that explains its comfortable feel. He says he "wanted to simplify." The result is more than 64 minutes of classic blues, a total of 15 old and new compositions, recorded live without overdubs. The backing instrumentation is as tight as a finely tuned guitar string, featuring beautifully charted horns that precisely punctuate King's singing and playing. And the keyboard work by James Sells Toney is inspired, especially on the B3 organ, which adds a culturally appropriate gospel texture to this collection of back-to-basics blues.

With the exception of three excellent instrumentals (including the opener, "Blues Boy's Tune," and the closer, "If That Ain't It I Quit"), the songs articulate the two major lyrical themes of King's career. Most focus on the tempestuous nature of love relationships (such as "Broken Promise," "Darlin' What Happened" and "If I Lost You"). The others are autobiographical statements such as "Blues Man," which proclaims the value of personal integrity despite hardships. In all cases, King's vocal style, ranging from impassioned blues shouter to tender balladeer, is as impressive as his masterfully economical guitar technique.

Although King is credited with authorship or co-authorship on all 15 songs, "Mean Old World" (first recorded by T-Bone Walker in 1942) and "Shake It Up and Go" (recorded by Tommy McClennan ca. 1939) are clearly standards that King has adapted. Nevertheless, this CD is all B.B. King in spirit -- his finest solo release in many years.

-- Roger Wood

Marcus Roberts
The Joy of Joplin
Sony Classical

When Marcus Roberts replaced Kenny Kirkland in Wynton Marsalis's band 13 years ago, no one would have predicted he would become one of the most controversial jazz pianists of the '90s. Like Marsalis, Roberts is an outspoken jazz traditionalist. He is also one of the most important and challenging pianists of our era.

In the early '90s, Roberts shifted his direction away from bebop to the pre-bop styles of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin, though he gave hints he was heading in that direction as early as 1987. Beginning with Alone with Three Giants and continuing through his latest, Roberts's solo piano recordings explore pre-bop jazz styles. It is to Roberts's credit that he is usually able to interpret compositions from bygone eras without sounding like a museum display.

Roberts's stated goals on The Joy of Joplin are "to demonstrate the influence of Joplin's music on modern jazz style" and to "bring the sound of ragtime together with the sounds of European classical music and the sounds of 20th century blues and swing." Dividing the program between Joplin compositions and ragtime-influenced originals, Roberts's amalgamation of jazz forms is satisfying and rarely seems contrived. The Joplin arrangements are improvised, which will bother purists, as Joplin wanted his music played note for note. Roberts's variation of "Bethena's Waltz" bears little resemblance to the original, omitting some of Joplin's melodies and inserting an improvised section. Roberts puts a new dress on "The Entertainer" by adding Count Basie and New Orleans influences and bebop lines, while "Maple Leaf Rag" benefits from concepts developed by Morton, James P. Johnson and Thelonious Monk. As for Roberts's originals, they often have a certain erudite quality to them. They don't sound academic, but they feel well studied. That said, Roberts's playing is passionate, particularly on the ballads.

On The Joy of Joplin, Roberts once again forces us to re-examine what jazz is and where jazz is now. That's good. It's one reason why he is a pivotal figure in today's jazz scene.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Sire Records

When music critics hear a great record, we trip over our well-thumbed thesauruses in search of perfect words of praise, and when there's a wretched release, there's gleeful fun in ripping apart (constructively, of course) the faults of an artist and his piss-poor songs.

But what happens when, despite repeated listenings and brain-racking, a record fails to make, well, any kind of impression? Welcome to this release by Texas band Soak, a quartet whose melding of hard rock, funk beats and rapped/screamed/talked/sung vocals is neither something to write home about nor to warn even your worst enemy away from ... it's just sort of there. This ambivalence could be the result of the faceless material. "Drowning," "Pocket Salt" and "Braille" could be from the repertoire of Anyband, USA. Only on the head-bobbing chants of the lead-off single, "Do It," and on the guitar-drenched, strobe-lit-dance-floor beckoning "Me Compassionate" does Soak not sound permanently damp. The album's problems are due in no little part to the almost nonpresence of vocalist/guitarist Jason Demetri, who time and time again simply does not register anything with the listener. It doesn't help that most of the lyrics are meandering, freshman poetry class stream-of-consciousness lines that have little connection to each other or to the song as a whole. If you imagine your local record store as a grocery, it will be easy to find this record -- just look on the aisle marked "Generic." This is a product that delivers what you can surmise from the label, although you just know it's bereft of any flavor. Or, in this case, flava.

-- Bob Ruggiero

La Llorona

Every so often a disc comes along that's so original in its playing and conception that it brings you up short and makes you re-evaluate the way you listen to music. La Llorona is such an album. Some tracks shift gears, some are straightforward, but most defy expectations while obviously remaining the work of a single artist/band. The album was released last year in Canada where it won the Best World Music Album Juno (Grammy). The recording also made it to No. 5 on the French pop charts and sold unexpectedly well in 14 other countries including Germany, Spain and Holland.

Lhasa de Sela, the band's namesake and lead vocalist, is going to be a major world music diva. The Montreal-based Mexican-American singer is young and beautiful, but she delivers her material with the boundless passion of a thousand-year-old gypsy witch. You can hear the dusty winds of desolate Spanish landscapes and the forlorn echoes of Eastern European mountain passes blowing through every deep, throaty syllable that comes pouring out of her mouth. Her collaborator and co-producer, Yves Desrosiers, is a multi-instrumentalist, and the touches he adds to the arrangements -- on acoustic guitar, lap steel and musical saw, which he uses to produce eerie sustained notes on several tracks -- bring an impressive range of feeling to the music.

Lhasa's wide-ranging world music fusion is rooted in the Latin continuum rather than the West African styles that inform most world beat excursions. The arrangements are a seamless blend of traditional flamenco (not the watered-down pop flamenco of the Gipsy Kings), Eastern European Gypsy soul and klezmer with a tinge of Argentinean tangos and Latin folk music played with a funk-like backbeat, and cabaret-influenced pop ballads. The sound is both alien and familiar, like the memory of a song you've never heard before.

-- j. poet

Freight Hoppers
Waiting on the Gravy Train

The Freight Hoppers play in the style folkies call "Old Time," a bare-bones way of picking and singing that harks back to the country music that was being made in the '20s and '30s, at the dawn of the recording industry. Like A.P. Carter, Gid Tanner and his Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Uncle Dave Macon, the Freight Hoppers use those Southern bedrock melodies -- which come from a place and time when folk, country, blues and pop music met to create an unself-conscious fusion of styles -- as a jumping-off place. They combine the archaic sounds they love with contemporary arrangements and a ferocious style of playing that probably wasn't possible years ago.

The four Hoppers -- Frank Lee, banjo, guitar, vocals; David Bass, fiddle; Cary Fridley, guitar, vocals; and James O'Keefe, bass -- all have backgrounds in bluegrass, but all felt that the modern version of the music placed more emphasis on flashy picking and slick arrangements than it did on the kind of raw emotion that first attracted them to the music.

Since the Hoppers started playing together in 1993, they've become one of the biggest roots bands of the movement, and it's easy to hear why. Cary Fridley has the kind of high, lonesome voice that critics call "untrained," a no-frills alto that transforms simple words into chilling emotional statements, especially on the country gospel tunes "We Shall All Be Reunited" and "Warfare." The fiddling of David Bass adds fire to the instrumentals "Wild Fling in the Woodpile" and "Backstep Cindy." The band dusts off tired old warhorses such as "Shortenin' Bread" and "Nobody's Business (If I Do)" by injecting them with a jolt of joyful passion that easily erases the artificial boundaries between past and present, traditional and modern.

-- j. poet

Various Artists
The Music in My Head

The Music in My Head is a complement to Mark Hudson's novel of the same name, based on his African voyage of musical and personal discovery. The British press called the book "the best novel ever written about music"; the album is its "soundtrack," containing some of the tunes that inspired Hudson's literary and geographic ramblings.

Even for those already familiar with West African pop, The Music in My Head provides some surprises, with a dazzling array of styles ranging across 30 years. Thione Seck, a Senegalese star largely unknown in the West, combines Arabic rhythms, kora (African harp) and a traditional female chorus. Youssou N'Dour is a musical schizophrenic who often dilutes the music he aims at the international market with dross like Seven Seconds, while releasing more "African" tracks such as "Njaajan Njaay," included here for the folks back home. The sax breaks give this track a smooth R&B flavor, but N'Dour's passionate singing, with its hints of arabic ornamentation and the mid-tempo Mbalax groove, are pure Africa.

If you are interested in one of the roots of N'Dour's style, listen closely to "Thiely,"a cover of an El Gran Combo tune N'Dour cut with Etoile de Dakar back in 1977 when the Cuban influence still predominated Senegalese music. Salif Keita et Les Ambassadeurs International are represented by "N'Toman," an up-tempo piece from 1978, with the Cuban rhythms providing a perfect complement to Keita's vocal improvisations and the band's relentless groove. Franco, the Congolese bandleader who became the most influential African guitarist of the past 50 years, shows a different side of his talent with his moving vocals on "Kinsiona," a lament composed after the death of his younger brother. There are also recent hits by Omar Pene et Super Diamono and Juliba Kuyateh, as well as a rarity such as "Djirime" by Gestu de Dakar, a one-hit wonder from Senegal.

-- j. poet

Heather Myles
Highways & Honky Tonks

Honky-tonk -- it's the liquor-soaked, tear-stained heart of country music, the metaphorical place where the steel guitars whine and the fiddles wail under neon beer signs while singers tell true-life stories. It's also pretty much a dying art, except for here in the Lone Star State and the California Central Valley populated by the offspring of Okie and Texan migrants.

Heather Myles certainly has honky-tonk credentials in her background, having been raised on a California horse ranch. And on this, her third studio album, her execution finally measures up to the idea of this pretty C&W crooner of heartbreak songs. In these days of alternative country, she's one of the few young artists who make no concession to current trends, cutting a stone country album that embodies the spirit of 1960s honky tonk within 1990s garb. The vibe of the accompaniment (by such Dwight Yoakam compadres as Pete Anderson and Skip Edwards) and the arrangements is so true you can almost smell the stale beer scent and feel the sawdust under your cowboy boots, as if this album was a Saturday night in your favorite country barroom.

Highways & Honky Tonks bears the imprimatur of country credibility with the presence of Merle Haggard, who duets with Myles on her song "No One Is Gonna Love You Better." She also delivers fine versions of the Charlie Pride hit "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," turning the song's orientation around from that of a good and proud man to that of a satisfied woman, and Ray Price's "I'll Be There If You Ever Want Me," where she performs a similar switch in perspective. But the really satisfying thing about this disc is how Myles's own writing has come into its own. With a deep and dusky voice that resembles Tanya Tucker, Myles dances her way into the spotlight once occupied by Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette in their early heydays. If this were 30 years ago, Myles would no doubt be a rising star. As it is, this is the sort of music that Nashville should still be making but has forsaken. Let's salute Heather Myles for keeping a bit of musical history very much alive. Even if it wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels, music like this is indeed a blessing from above.

-- Rob Patterson

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