Now Hear This 

Reviews of new releases by Tom Waits, Dan Zanes, U2, Le Tigre, Evanescence, Kool & The Gang, Diana Krall and Fela Kuti. Plus a Miles Davis box set and the "Festival Express" DVD.

His music sounds as if it were pieced together from thrift store finds. Banjos, chamberlains, turntables (provided by his son, Casey) and odd percussions bob and weave through his compositions built on lyrical narratives. The frailty of the 10-minute epic "Sins of My Father" and the caustic lament "How's It Gonna End" are indicative of his unflinching assessments of sadness and beauty. Marc Ribot's skeletal guitar graces gritty rockers "Top of the Hill" and "Hoist That Rag" with a stinging bite that underscores the ferocious throb of the album's opening tracks.

"Real Gone" is a carnival ride through the good, the bad and ugly of life utilizing elements of country, gospel, blues and beyond in this haunting set of, dare I say it, musical genius. I can't seem to get enough. ****1/2— Chris Bopst

Dan Zanes "Parades and Panoramas" (Festival Five Records)

Collected by poet Carl Sandburg, "The American Songbag" (1927) is a legendary book of American folk songs populated by railroad workers, gamblers, hobos and pioneers. New York musician Dan Zanes (ex-Del Fuegos) is known for his children's music but has outdone himself with these wonderfully assured versions of 25 period songs from "Songbag."

Assembling neighborhood friends on banjos, tubas, accordions, fiddles, bouzoukis, drums and guitars, Zanes captures the warmth of hand-me-down music sung in a communal vein; at times it may be sloppy, but the spirit feels right. The numerous contributors include guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) and accordionist/singer Cynthia Hopkins, who provides bittersweet, Norah Jones-like vocals to the self-pitying ballad "Lonesome Road" ("I wish to God that I had died/Had died before I was born/ Before I seen your smilin' face/An' heard your lyin' tongue"). Elsewhere, Zanes isn't afraid to experiment with reggae-infused gospel takes, and one of best tracks is the oft-covered "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," first sung in 1897 by Kansas farmhands and reborn here as a catchy, singalong anthem to idleness.

Nostalgic albums owe their worth to the material and the interpretative abilities of the artist, and Zanes succeeds by trusting these lively songs with organic, homegrown versions that appeal to both young and old.

The CD includes a 60-page booklet with lyrics, guitar chords and excerpts of Sandburg's illuminating comments. **** — Brent Baldwin

U2 "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (Interscope)

Despite its title, U2's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" is not a political record, but rather a very moving personal one. It's hard to interpret the title, as it comes from a song not on the album. Instead, the overall theme is about love overcoming adversity.

While the first single, "Vertigo," is a rocker that ranks with U2's best, boasting an aggressive slashing guitar riff, much of the record is contemplative, with lyrics confronting personal loss, helplessness, and a yearning for love. Lead singer Bono's father was dying as the record was being created, and that topic was forefront in Bono's mind when it came to putting lyrics to guitarist The Edge's compositions.

Bono's voice boasts an expressiveness and vulnerability we're not used to. The band is in top shape as well, adding sonic accents heard throughout U2's catalog, whether it be trademark guitar sounds, ominous bass lines, or effective use of the triangle or piano to lighten the mood. The Edge's precise angular contributions to this guitar-driven album are a continual delight. Very strong for the first eight cuts, the last couple of songs dip a bit, as if U2 had run out of the high-test stuff. Render this record short of classic status. **** — Andy Garrigue

Le Tigre "This Island" (Universal)

Whither wit? This is the question that lingers after a listen to "This Island," Le Tigre's major-label debut. The fun and spunk evident on previous songs like "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?" is gone, leaving behind nothing but a snide attitude, repetitive music and heavy-handed lyrics.

In place of the band's usual insightful, livid and lively lyrics is a mish-mash of preachiness and yelling. "You make me sick sick sick sick" Kathleen Hanna shrieks about President Bush on "Seconds" — "Anarchy in the UK" this is not.

From the not-so-subtle political message of "New Kicks" — a sampling of speeches from Al Sharpton and Susan Sarandon set to an erratic beat — to the karaoke-quality cover of the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited," this album is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. By far the standout track on the album is the Ric Ocasek-produced "Tell You Now." Its cool lyrics and calm delivery catch a glimmer of what could have been.

This album is a disappointing release in a year that has witnessed the disturbing pop crossover of smart indie-rock chicks like Liz Phair. Le Tigre has not completely lost their punk convictions, but they are halfway there. Which begs the question, where do punks go after they are established? Hopefully, not to "This Island." ** — Shannon O'Neill

Evanescence "anywhere but home" (Wind-Up)

Studio tweaks and retakes seem to be at the core of Evanescence's multiplatinum success. The band's Goth pop debut, "Fallen," is a testament to its talent. However, the current release "anywhere but home" falls flat. Recorded at the Zenith in Paris, the live CD/DVD set proves that every band can have a bad night. Unfortunately for Evanescence, this one is captured, pressed and preserved.

The love child of Linkin Park and Tori Amos is more metal than melody onstage. The balance between fierce rock rhythms and delicate melodies is no longer. Front woman Amy Lee's tinkling keys are lost amid aggressive beats and guitar riffs. Fatigued vocals repeatedly miss the mark and at times verge on karaoke versions of themselves. "Bring Me to Life," the single that snagged a Grammy last year for Best Hard Rock Performance, is tepid at best. "Breathe No More" and "My Immortal" are exceptions where Lee's performance emerges from the din and reminds us that she's not entirely tone-deaf.

Die-hard followers will savor the DVD footage, a cover of Korn's "Thoughtless" and the inclusion of "Missing," a previously unreleased track. Casual listeners should save their money for the upcoming studio release. ** — Hilary Langford

Kool & The Gang "The Hits: Reloaded" (Sanctuary)

This CD's ultimate destination is taking up space in super saver bins at record stores. And the sooner the better.

This thoroughly disposable collection of remixes of late '70s/early '80s Kool & The Gang hits performed alongside hit-makers of today is a unlistenable exercise in musical vapidity. A more soulless, pain-inducing listen would be hard to find.

No one gets it right on this disc. No one even comes close. Questionable "talents" like Lisa Stansfield (the insipid, saccharine sweet take on "Too Hot") and Ashanti (the overblown smarmy ballad, "Cherish") butcher the group's enduring classics with a smug sense of entitlement. Redman's take on "Hollywood Swinging" is devoid of the original's infectious groove while Jimmy Cliff & Bounty Killer's dancehall tag team on "(Ooh La La La) Let's Go Dancing" fails miserably under the weight of its stifling pretense. Angie Stone, Sean Paul and Jamiroquai all offer humdrum performances that leave much to be desired. Even Kool & The Gang themselves sleepwalk through the collaborations.

But the fatal flaw of this disc is that it has no real joy. Everything is processed and manufactured to the point that the group's homespun charms are completely lost in these tedious updates. If one were to only know their songs by these representations, they would logically question what all the fuss was about.

For the real deal, stick with Kool & The Gang's original recordings, as "The Hits: Reloaded" is no reason to celebrate. 1/2— C.B.

Diana Krall "The Girl in the Other Room" (Verve)

Diana Krall is the jazz singer of the moment. This doesn't mean she is the best, or even the most interesting. After all, the jazz musician of the era is the technically impeccable but resolutely backward-looking Wynton Marsalis. Norah Jones may sell more records and Cassandra Wilson gets less critical suspicion, but both wear their distinctive styles like straitjackets. Krall at least shares her Canadian nationality with the folk/rock/jazz singer to whom all three owe a great debt — Joni Mitchell. The jazz-tinged albums Mitchell recorded in the '70s bear the same essential source relationship to the modern crop of popular jazz singers as the mid-'60s albums of the Velvet Underground do to the alternative movement

"The Girl in the Other Room" is both Krall's most personal work and her least "jazzy." The CD is constructed around songs co-written with the singer's new husband, Elvis Costello. Love is blind, but marrying one of the great singer/songwriters of the era can hardly be seen as shortsighted. Costello, whose astringency worked wonders in previous collaborations with sweeter souls like Bert Bacharach and Paul McCartney, lends a depth-defining darkness that is missing in Krall's earlier work.

Interspersed are songs from other artists, notably "Temptation" from Tom Waits, which is appealing if nowhere near the edgy level of the far less-renowned Canadian Holly Cole's all-Waits album. A respectful cover of "Black Crow" overtly casts Joni Mitchell's shadow in the second half of the set.

While "Girl" may not satisfy Krall's fans' taste for conservatively crafted standards, it is easily her most interesting and engaging work to date. **** — P.M.

Fela Kuti mixed by Chief Xcel "The Underground Spiritual Game" (Quannum)

"I think as far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be about enjoyment. It must be about revolution." That quote from Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti belies the sheer exuberance of his music.

The godfather of Afrobeat, Kuti coined that term to describe his fusion of funk guitar and jazz horns with West African drums and call-and-response choruses sung in pidgin English and Yoruba. His persistent criticism of Nigeria's westward-looking government twice prompted the army to besiege his home.

Kuti scorned such intimidation in song. "Spiritual Game" spans his career but focuses on his most prolific and controversial years, the mid-'70s, with incendiary songs like "Mr. Follow Follow" and "Unnecessary Begging." It is a fitting nod to Kuti's Afrocentrism that Chief Xcel of the Bay Area duo Blackalicous should play Fela's apostle to young urbanites.

Xcel does so with minimal turntable trickery, although he abbreviates several songs so as to diversify the mix. Fela Kuti's affinity for indigenous polyrhythmic song structures suits the dance-mix motif, and Xcel compensates for a few sloppy cuts by interspersing Kuti quotes.

Xcel also mines Kuti's discography for tracks not featured on 1999's "Best of…" or 2002's "Red Hot + Riot" (a fitting installment in the long-running AIDS-benefit series since Kuti died HIV-positive in 1997). His Afrobeat primer reaches an energetic crescendo with the 17-minute sermon on pan-Africanism "Africa Centre of the World," which sounds just as politically charged 25 years on. **** — Nathan Lott

Miles Davis "Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964" (Columbia/Legacy Jazz) (7-CD)

"Seven Steps" is the last and largest of Columbia's Miles Davis compilations; it is also one of the most interesting. The title works on several levels: "Seven Steps to Heaven" is the signature Davis song of the era; it's the seventh set in the series; and it contains seven CDs documenting the creative arc from the final recordings with John Coltrane to the final formation of Davis' monumental '60s quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

What came before and what followed overshadow this part of Miles' career. But even if anything between two peaks is a valley, Miles' valley is still above the crests of the vast majority of musicians. These complete recordings, mostly live, all unedited, are among the best and most accessible of Davis' work.

Since all the members of the '60s quintet except Shorter are in place by the second CD, these recordings can be seen as the quest for someone to replace Coltrane. On five of seven of the CDs the saxophonist is George Coleman, who plays with muscular sophistication. He does great and subtle work, but never satisfied Davis' need for a fiery counterpoint to his cool trumpet playing.

A Tokyo concert (the sixth CD) featuring the iconoclastic Sam Rivers goes too far in the opposite direction. Rivers seems to be playing with a completely different band, albeit one with Tony Williams on drums. It's very interesting, but easy to see why it didn't last.

On the seventh CD the '60s quintet is complete; Davis has made the Goldilocks decision and found a saxophone sound that is just right. The completed band may be the "heaven" toward which the seven sessions have been building, but the steps leading to it, especially the ones with the underrated George Coleman, are a stroll through jazz paradise. ****1/2 — Peter McElhinney

"Festival Express" (New Line) (2-DVD)

It was the summer of 1970. The counterculture had barely recovered from Woodstock and its evil twin, Altamont ("cool out, everybody!"), when the National Guard shot and killed student protestors at Kent State. So who's up for a road trip?

Canadian concert promoters apparently liked the idea and organized a rolling train festival of music billed as a "Woodstock on Wheels," with stops between Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary — the first youth-a-palooza of its kind. Among the bands included were the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney and Bonnie, and tag-along TV greasers Sha Na Na.

The colorful documentary "Festival Express" features recently unearthed footage of the legendary ride and an inside look at what happens when you coop drunk and stoned '60s stars in small spaces. The whole tour was defined by two reoccurring themes: crowd riots from disgruntled Canadian teens who thought the shows should be free and musicians retreating to the party train to jam amongst themselves in cars organized by genre.

The musical highlights fall mostly to Joplin, arguably the greatest white soul singer of all time, and bluesman Buddy Guy, who thrives in the loose-knit setting. There is a sterling live performance of "I Shall Be Released" by The Band and plenty of all-star jams for fans.

Director Bob Smeaton uses split screens to show finely restored footage of bare-chested dirt twirlers beside recent interviews with graying survivors from the bands. While the artists tend to overstate their own importance in grandiose, baby boomer-style proclamations, most agree that the real concerts were happening on the train, where musicians felt safe from the "bad trip" outside. As such, this documentary is an interesting snapshot of its time, when utopian-minded artists realized the whole "free love thing" had its drawbacks when you invited everyone. *** — Brent Baldwin

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