Guy Clark
Keepers: A Live Recording
Sugar Hill

"Keepers" is exactly right. The title of Guy Clark's latest disc suggests that what we have here is a collection of a legendary songwriter's best songs, recorded live. And we do. But what makes this one of the year's best albums is that Clark takes things a giant step beyond merely revisiting 15 of his past glories in front of a paying audience. On Keepers, Clark offers up the definitive version of each one of those tunes. The reasons behind this success are threefold. First, when Clark recorded many of these songs the first time around, his voice was often a little thin, raspy and cracking. But in the second half of his career, he's grown into his voice. His singing on Keepers is full and worn with wisdom and warmth; his voice is still hoarse, but it never falters. Second, the acoustic band Clark surrounded himself with for this live gig is intimate and loose and spontaneous in way that Clark's bands have never been in even his best studio recordings. Finally, the stories and asides Clark offers his audience (he dubs one song "the antithesis of boot-scoot boogie") add an informal, front-porch charm to the proceedings, and the crowd's reactions seem to push the band to ever-higher heights. The result is an "L.A. Freeway" that out escapes and a "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" that out good-byes even Jerry Jeff Walker's better known covers.

This shouldn't have been a surprise. There's always been something almost Zen about Clark's finest compositions. His best songs have always been so in the moment, so at one with the task at hand. On Keepers, when confronted with pain and joy, he knows that the two are inseparable, and so with great joy and pain he embraces "A Little Bit of Both." When he sings "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Texas Cookin'," the focus is simply on the enjoyment of eating homegrown tomatoes and Texas cooking. When he recounts seeing his first streamlined train in "Texas, 1947," he is the thrill of that moment. Given this quality of his art, it only stood to reason that a live recording might capture Clark at his best. So maybe the real reason that Keepers lives up to its name is that, when Clark performs his greatest hits here, he just performs them -- like nothing else could be more important than the task at hand. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Foo Fighters
The Colour and the Shape

Slight expectations are easy to meet. Who knew that Dave Grohl wrote songs before the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut? And what a pleasant surprise Foo Fighters was, proof that Nirvana's pop-punk glory didn't die with Kurt Cobain. "I'll Stick Around" and "This Is a Call" may not be the equal of Cobain's best, but Foo Fighters earned most of its raves. Any doubts were offset by sheer disbelief that Grohl -- a drummer, for Chrissakes -- had done most of it himself.

But Foo Fighters are now a real band (Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mandel and new drummer Taylor Hawkins). And The Colour and the Shape is their In Utero, the prove-it-again challenge that follows any big breakthrough. Unlike Cobain, however, Grohl seems destined to survive whatever comes his way, be it mixed reviews, tepid sales or the end of his marriage, which crashed and burned between CDs.

The Colour and the Shape is supposedly Grohl's "divorce album," but don't expect the white-knuckle ride of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot out the Lights. Grohl doesn't have the patience to stay sad for long, and producer Gil Norton has buffed his can't-help-singing-'em melodies to a bright, mod-rock sheen.

Truth to tell, Grohl sounds more comfortable with the power-pop surge of "Monkey Wrench" and the light, jazzy breeze of "See You" than with the Cobain-like screams he forces in "Enough Space" and "Windup." Overall, the band uses Nirvana's sonic formula (soft verse, loud chorus) a little too often -- the effect has been cheapened by too much imitation. Considering Grohl's formative background (drummer on the Washington, D.C., hard-core scene), it's disarming how good he is at writing and singing ballads. There's nothing particularly distinctive about the lyrics of "February Star" or "Walking After You," but Grohl's voice is sweet enough to soften the lingering sting of loss and regret.

A good album, The Colour and the Shape won't stand the music industry on its head. It's not even the equal of Foo Fighters, though part of what's missing is the sense of surprise. Grohl has never spoken publicly about Cobain's suicide or his relationship with Courtney Love, but I'd always assumed there was meaning buried deep in the noisy bowels of Foo Fighters. Now I'm convinced that Grohl is simply an ordinary hero; he'll bleed for his own pain, but damned if he's going to suffer for you too. In other words, look to Foo Fighters for reliable hooks, but don't expect them to shatter your world, or build it up again either. (*** 1/2)

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Carrie Bell
Michael Bertin
David Cantwell
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey
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