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The Chords

BILLY BRAGG & WILCO

Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

The concept starts with the title. Mermaid Avenue is the street in Coney Island where singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie and his family lived during the late '40s and early '50s. Then, as now, the Oklahoma-born Guthrie was best known for writing "This Land Is Your Land" (and dozens of other similarly audacious, tuneful manifestoes) and the semiautobiographical Bound for Glory. He's also noted for coming down with an incurable hereditary disease of the nervous system, Huntington's chorea, that prevented him from performing in public from 1954 until his death at age 56, in 1967, by which time his influence on folk, folk-rock and Bob Dylan was massive. End of historical digression.

The news is that Guthrie left us with the lyrics to several hundred unrecorded songs - minus any musical notation. Flash forward to 1992, when Nora Guthrie witnesses English punk-rock troubadour Billy Bragg's performance at her father's 80th-birthday memorial concert in New York City and suggests he write fresh music to these lyrics. Bragg begins his dive into the archives in '95, bringing Chicago-based "alt.country"-rockers Wilco into the mix two years later. Decamping to Dublin, they cut the resulting collaborations mostly live! in the studio, and serve up the metaphorical platypus on this head-spinning platter.

Guthrie never made a rock & roll record in his life, but his disciples sure did, and you can hear echoes of every one of 'em (Dylan, The Band, Springsteen, Costello and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, for openers) here. While the subterranean homesick blues of "Walt Whitman's Niece" and the intentionally nonsensical frat-rock of "Hoodoo Voodoo" are guaranteed to wear the shine off the dance floor, the tangled-up-in-blue "Hesitating Beauty" and the righteous outlaw-loves-his-horse tale of "The Unwelcome Guest" are no less brilliant marriages of music and message.

Aside from deepening the long shadow that Guthrie casts over the worlds of country ("California Stars" and "At My Window Sad and Lonely") and folk (the scarifying "Eisler on the Go"), the 20/20 hindsight that Bragg and Wilco bring to this project focuses a spotlight on Guthrie's blinding lyrical skills, which stretch from thoroughly modern love songs (the self-deprecating "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key") to humorous sex fantasies ("Ingrid Bergman") to serious politics-with-a-punch-line ("Christ for President"). On paper, this may sound like a nightmare, but on - and for - the record, it's Bob Dylan's 116th dream come true.

ERNEST RANGLIN

In Search of the Lost Riddim (Palm Pictures)

The title of Ernest Ranglin's latest album may suggest a work in progress, but it's anything but unfinished or half-baked. With a quiet, fun-loving ferocity, In Search of the Lost Riddim revisits and explores the source of much of modern music's creative force - the inextricable linkages between the Mother Continent and its far-flung progeny.

Finally achieving his long-held dream of recording in Senegal, Ranglin brought acoustic bassist/co-producer/translator Ira Coleman and trap drummer Dion Parson to Dakar for the project, where they were joined by local hero Baaba Maal, members of his Daande Lenol band and a few guests. The sessions have a cozy live feel, with relaxed yet fiery tama, sabar and balafon percussion forays driving forward the cross-cultural improvisations. Ranglin's clean-toned electric-guitar ripples, skitters and flutters throughout, lulling with mellowness then blitzing the synapses with wicked-fast single-note runs, bobbing and weaving in conversation with the kora's twinkly runs and the singers' exclamations. The 66-year-old Jamaican jazzbo is nothing if not stylistically versatile. Ska and reggae chicken-scratchings lively up "D'Accord Dakar" and "Nuh True," highlife flavors permeate "Pili Pili," and a hint of Cuban clave lurks in the chords of "Cherie." Baaba and his griot buddy Mansour Seck lend characteristically impassioned vocals and rhythm guitar - especially on the trance-mantra groove of "Haayo" ("Welcome") - but the surprise stunner is the debut of 14-year-old Cisse Diamba Kanoute, whose singing turns on "Ala Walee" and "Wouly" are house-rocking, culture-channeling events. Although the teenage phenom would be called the LeAnn Rimes of Senegalese pop only in a parallel universe, Kanoute's gravelly earth-mama pipes do bring to mind the "talent-beyond-her-years" label.

The chemistry on In Search of the Lost Riddim sounds so damn natural you'd swear the musicians had been playing together all their lives - or even their previous lives. (Tom Cheyney)

JOHN MARTYN

The Church With One Bell (Thirsty Ear/Independiente)

Scottish singer-songwriter-guitarist John Martyn is one of this world's musical treasures. For more than three decades, his innovative singing, songwriting and guitar work have placed him in the ranks of a select few: those with a singular voice who have stubbornly insisted on placing substance above style or flash. Beyond that, Martyn is a salty and spiritual curmudgeon and - in the Celtic tradition - terminally smitten by drink and love. Beginning with some incomparable semiacoustic records in the late '60s, he left his fellow folkies in the dust with Inside Out, a soaring, electric raga-influenced LP, with Martyn grumbling and mumbling all-but-indecipherable lyrics. From there, he settled into an evolved fusion, a radio-friendly mix of blues- and jazz-based pop.

 

For Martyn, his latest was a purely practical effort; he approached his label and said he wanted to buy a church. (The building, his new home, is pictured on the cover.) The label heads agreed to advance him the necessary dough - if he would title the disc The Church With One Bell and choose from a list of cover songs they would provide. For listeners, the LP reaffirms that Martyn's vision goes beyond his own compositions (on 1993's No Little Boy, he re-recorded 13 of his own songs). Taking a disparate collection of tunes by artists including Randy Newman, Rev. Gary Davis, Portishead and Billie Holiday, he has made them his own, slowing them down, changing major keys to minor and, most of all, delivering them with that beautiful soothing rasp of a voice.

He fearlessly tackles Holiday's "Strange Fruit," a tune that most song stylists (at least those with any sense) wisely shy away from. His band, notably pianist Spencer Cozens, expertly follows his every mood. Using percolating guitar and keyboard lines, he turns Dead Can Dance's "How Fortunate the Man With None" into a bluesy trance. And by the time he's done with Bobby Charles and Rick Danko's "Small Town Talk," it sounds like an outtake from One World or Grace and Danger. His narcotic take on Elmore James' well-worn blues "The Sky Is Crying" is stunning: Slowed down until it nearly floats into space, the tune is transformed into a druggy tour de force for Martyn's voice. Fittingly - Martyn is never far from gallows humor - the disc closes (save for the hidden track, a more straight-ahead mix of DCD's "How Fortunate") with a downright spooky version of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy."

If nothing else, this is a testament to the power of Martyn's singular "voice." As he recently put it, "Whether you're playing the oboe or the tambourine or a box of matches and a whistle, if you're strong enough about it, you're still going to sound like you." (Michael Lipton)

4 HERO

Two Pages (Reinforced/Talking Loud)

The newest offering from Dego and Mark Mac - the prolific Reinforced producers who run under the ID "4 Hero" - Two Pages could just as well be called "many styles to make you wow." From fast-paced, fully orchestrated D&B to down-tempo electro-soul and hard head-butts that configure into still melodic pools, building till the thunder of bass and kicks strikes, the two discs ("pages") or eight sides ("chapters") of vinyl give the listener the entire spectrum of jungle, hip-hop, folk, blues and roots. The album is divided into the organic and the tech, sparing listeners the pain of stretching to hear the two distinctly different styles side by side.

Page 1 finds Luke Parkhouse drumming his heart away with live harps, violins, cellos, Moogs, guitars and reeds layered over him, as the 4 Hero vision is realized. Shining in front from these first chapters are luminous "star chasers," featuring the gracefully leaping vocals of Face and the tremendous soul climb of the instrumental "Spirits in Transit." Included from the now-classic EP Earth Pioneers are Ursula Rucker's tale of Mother Earth's children turning from loving to "Loveless," as well as "Planetaria (A Theme From a Dream)."

Page 2 offers mystic sci-fi sonics pulled from recall files of space travel, out-of-body and in-craft. "We Who Are Not as Others," "Humans," "Greys" - it's a pattern? All the beings that they compose for are given a different flavor, from the old-school funk-tech of Mantronix or Afrika Bam (Kraftwerk really) to a future electric that sounds like "think different."

This truly is a triumph, and I'm not even mentioning the treats for those without a sense of ear. The cover and insider art is incredible. Mm, mm, mm! (Carlos Nino)

SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS

Perennial Favorites (Mammoth)

Just like how the Kingston Trio's folk-revival-era forays into Hawaiian ukulele and Irish-jig rhythms actually rocked harder than a lot of early-'60s teen rock & roll, the best products of the current post-alt-rock jazz-dance-combo revival are way catchier and more energetic than anything you'll ever hear by, say, Semisonic or Dave Matthews. But where Royal Crown Revue and Cherry Poppin' Daddies at least seem to have some clue about how hard rock's aggression changed the way blues-based music can feel, eclectic Chapel Hill nostalgics the Squirrel Nut Zippers are a more creepily complete retreat from the present. On their third album, Perennial Favorites, even protest attempts like "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill" and "Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter" convey a quaint gentility diametrically opposite both numbers' Great Depression razzing-the-rich lyrics.

 

Their Prairie Home Companion stodginess suggests these period-piece addicts expect to be taken more seriously than the popularizers of, say, "Winchester Cathedral" or "Puttin' on the Ritz" ever were. And maybe they deserve to be - the Zippers pull off all sorts of different pre-World War II rhythms, not just the Dixieland revelry that dominates their new CD as much as previous ones. "Trou Macacq" is a determinism-obsessed sequel to last year's damnation-calypso novelty hit "Hell," "Ghost of Stephen Foster" a whirling-dervish klezmer based on "Camptown Races." We're lucky somebody in the late '90s has such a syncopative sense of 78-rpm history. We'd just be luckier if it was somebody who also knew a thing or two about the Sex Pistols and Donna Summer. (Chuck Eddy)


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