Reviews of CDs by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Rene Marie, Phish, David Nelson Band
Now Hear This
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra) - Two years ago, Brit pop/folk singer Billy Bragg and American alt-country/rock band Wilco first got together to set their music to lyrics for unpublished songs written by folk hero Woody Guthrie. The resulting recording, "Mermaid Avenue," was both a critical and commercial success, a thoughtful and melodic tribute to one of America's greatest and most prolific songwriters. The second installment of this collaboration is made up of material recorded during a second session this winter in Dublin and of leftovers from the original "Mermaid Avenue." And what tasty leftovers they are.
Bragg and Wilco sound more confident on this album, surer in their abilities to interpret Guthrie's songs. As on Vol. 1, Bragg handles most of the politically themed songs while Wilco tackles love songs. Natalie Merchant returns on this album as well with "I Was Born," a short, childlike ditty, and blues singer Corey Harris lends his vocals to "Against Th' Law."
Standouts include the lengthy "Remember the Mountain Bed," sung by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Bragg's Dust-bowl dirge "Black Wind Blowing in the Cotton Field," and Wilco's almost annoyingly infectious pop masterpiece "Secret of the Sea."
Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime, many of which he never set to music. Let's hope Bragg and Wilco decide to give it at least one more go. Jessica Ronky Haddad
Rene Marie, "How Can I Keep From Singing?" (MaxJazz) Rene Marie's first national release, on the singer-focused MaxJazz label, is as warm and approachable as her live performances. Backed by an all-star band and by her Richmond band on a bonus video cut, she combines vocal capacity with disarming openness.
The CD is structured like a live set opening with an up-tempo "What a Difference a Day Makes." "Tennessee Waltz" is next; the Patsy Cline standard was the surprise hit of Marie's debut recording and has been sung (by request) so often that it has become her signature piece. Once past this landmark, she moves into more ambitious territory, a combination of the traditional "Motherless Child" and "Four Women," Nina Simone's challenging, multipart character study.
The rest of the recording, including standards like "Afro Blue" and "God Bless The Child" as well as three Marie originals, can be heard as a song cycle leading up to the closing title piece. A key aspect of Marie's appeal is the emotional transparence of her interpretations. "How Can I Keep From Singing?" is a window that opens into her feelings, and out onto a promising career. Peter McElhinney
Phish, "Farmhouse, " (Elektra) A Phish concert ticket is the best thing a jam-band fan can hook. Yet, during the band's 17 years, fans have tended to net bootlegs instead of albums. The Vermont quartet's latest album, "Farmhouse," may continue that habit.
"Farmhouse," recorded in a 19th-century Vermont farmhouse-turned-studio, differs from 1998's "The Story of the Ghost." While "Ghost" was composed spontaneously, most of "Farmhouse" was presented in concert on the band's 1999 fall tour and even before that. "Piper" and the title track appear on 1999's "Hampton Comes Alive." On "Farmhouse," spontaneity is set aside for structure and melody.
Beatlesque tunes such as "Back on the Train" and, especially, "Heavy Things" show guitarist Trey Anastasio can write catchy singles. Faster songs like "Gotta Jiboo," "Twist" and "Piper" are kept open for all kinds of spontaneous jamming, like most of the tunes on the album. Two melodic instrumentals, "The Inlaw Josie Wales" and "First Tube" display excellent musical interplay. Incidentally, "First Tube" is reminiscent of the band's "Stash." "Farmhouse" is different from Phish of yore, but it shows the band still swims along an uncharted musical shore. Jacob Parcell
David Nelson Band, "Visions Under the Moon," (High Adventure) Band leader Nelson is well known as one of the founders along with Jerry Garcia and John Dawson of the '70s hippie country band New Riders of the Purple Sage. Nelson formed DNB six years back with players from various legendary San Francisco bands, and "Visions" is the group's first studio effort. Not surprisingly, the project's 10 cuts offer much the same type of California outlaw/Deadhead visionary music that made the Riders such a popular band. They recorded this one at studio/theater sessions before live audiences in Portland, Ore., and the band weaves its way through a set of mostly Nelson originals. These tunes, however, will sound anything but original to those who have listened to Garcia/Robert Hunter songs through the years. The arrangements, guitar riffs and harmonies are straight out of the Grateful Dead songbook. But that said, Deadheads will love this CD. The recording is clear and the band's playing sounds terrific. There's plenty of fluid wandering guitar, a little pedal steel and plenty of Phil Lesh-style bass to propel the sound. DNB continues to keep the '60s alive. Ames Arnold
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