Fire on the Strings (Columbia/Legacy)

Billing himself as “Crazy Joe,” virtuoso guitar-banjo-fiddle chieftain Joe Maphis was one of country music’s most accelerated interpreters, a player whose radical barrage of rapid-fire fretwork influenced every hillbilly guitar slinger from Hollywood to Nashville. Unbelievably, this reissue of his 1957 instrumental album Fire on the Strings, out of print since 1960, is the very first time any Maphis solo effort has ever been made available domestically (even exhaustive Deutsch über-label Bear Family has put out only a handful of Crazy Joe tracks), and it’s a severely overdue re-introduction.

The Virginia-born Maphis, who enjoyed a long and successful run with wife and onstage partner Rose Lee Maphis, wound up (like so many other forward-looking, freewheeling country talents) based in Los Angeles; the couple cooked up 1953’s honky-tonk classic “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)” while driving back from a date at Bakersfield’s BlackBoard Cafe. For years, Joe and Rose Lee were fixtures on the popular weekly Compton-based KTTV broadcast Town Hall Party, and he continued working, despite a cancer-ravaged physical condition, in Duarte at the Cabaret (now Dorothy’s Stage Stop) almost up until his 1986 death. What set Maphis apart from other L.A.-based guitar luminaries, such as the jazz-pop-tinged Jimmy Bryant and Kentucky finger-picking stylist Merle Travis, was his penchant for adapting old-timey fiddle tunes to the guitar (the title track’s a reworking of the folk oldie “Fire on the Mountain”), which resulted in a head-spinning mixture of dazzling, modern guitar pyrotechnics that always maintained a resolutely back-hills feel.

The ability to superimpose tomorrow upon yesterday with such blistering intensity was Maphis’ calling card, symbolized by his use of the very first double-necked guitar, a custom-built Mosrite, displayed today at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame; he was also the only cat in history able to strap on one of these ridiculous axes and not look like a grandstanding jerk. Quite the contrary, Maphis’ masterly onslaughts are complex romps through a rich tradition that’s virtually lost today, and this better-late-than-never opportunity to dig in with Crazy Joe is both irresistible and essential. (Jonny Whiteside)

The Return of El Santo (Luaka Bop)

How many food groups on the musical buffet can a band consume without getting labeled shameless eclecticists or directionless fetishists? Thanks to such rockero revolutionaries as Café Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, the answer is: as many as you damn well please. On their 1996 debut, King Changó supped heavily on Jamaican fare, especially off the ska plate. Although their tastes still include such hearty staples as dub and dancehall, the New York–based bilingual combo taste-tests much broader fare on The Return of El Santo. Extra portions of cumbia, funk, salsa, son jarocho and drum ’n’ bass are now sampled from the collective banquet.

Photo by Christian Lantry

The album, dedicated to the silver-masked Mexican wrestler and actor El Santo, scores both takedown and escape points with the group’s muscular grappling on the first tracks. The oddly titled opening track, “Finalmente,” plies montuno keyboard and bad-bwoi ragga, plowing common ground between Carib-island sounds, while “El Santo” clenches with carnavelesque cumbia, rasty dancehall phrasings and thrashy guitar work. If that bit of ol’ Veracruz acoustic strum powering the speed-chat and croon of “Brujeria” folks you up, the cosmo-pop-Latin techno shimmer of “Tuveras” will bring your space station’s dance floor to a full boil. The Changóistas do care a lot, as evidenced by the booklet’s references to the U.S. Navy getting the hell out of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the personalized social commentary of “What Politicians Say” and “Lil Sister.” Certain tunes show sonic solidarity with similarly minded outfits, like “Best Dressed Pimp” (anyone seen Los Amigos Invisibles?), “Full Time Business” (those Specials-tribute riffs are a dead giveaway) and “Step Me Down” (passing the Chemical Brothers in the hall, they exchanged pleasantries . . . ).

King Changó somehow maintain a cohesive band sound, though they barely keep a headlock on the slippery grooves that squirm mightily in their wigged-out imaginations. A wrestler may want total control, but an iron grip isn’t always a good harbinger of artistry. The Return of El Santo marks the arrival of a true contender. (Tom Cheyney)

True North (Interscope/Farmclub)

Hailed by Time magazine as “the biggest Internet-based band ever” — an accolade that could mean the big enchilada or a footnote in a reference book — Fisher, an ambitious duo composed of West Virginia–raised singer-songwriter Kathy Fisher and her musical partner and husband, Ron Wasserman, has joined the ranks of major-label artists via a unique hybrid of Internet and traditional music forces. After landing its tune “Breakable” on the soundtrack for the film Great Expectations, Fisher put the track on an MP3 Web site. Subsequent singles — the Windham Hill–sounding ballad “I Will Love You,” and “Any Way” (both included on the disc) — had even more success: Last year, the band’s tunes were downloaded nearly 2 million times. Fisher then inked a deal with Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub.com, a subsidiary of Universal Music (named for Interscope co-chairman Jimmy Iovine and Universal honcho Doug Morris) as a direct result of the band’s Internet draw (at one point, seven Fisher songs were in MP3.com’s Top 40).

Okay, but what about the music? No matter who or what opened the door, Kathy Fisher’s full-length debut puts her in the running with vets like Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin and Alanis Morissette — sans much of the annoying pretentiousness. Beginning with the swaggering “Hello It’s Me,” a piano-driven rocker with Fisher’s husky, sensual voice recalling the spirit of one of the original (and still sassy) femme rockers, Essra Mohawk, the tune offers a polite (and timely) kiss-off to an inattentive label rep. Underpinned by a drum loop, “Any Way” is designed to sound more current, which it does, perhaps at the expense of some of the band’s identity. Still, as with the disc’s other standouts — the ethereal “Never Say Never,” the re-recorded “Breakable” and the powerful “Six Hundred Sixty-Six” — the songs are extremely solid pop efforts that meld passion (make that sensuality), melody and more than a few memorable hooks.

At 29, and being a relative newcomer, Fisher (the person) is in danger of being too old for the youngsters and too young for the oldsters. But her themes (the timeless emotional flotsam and jetsam of relationships), style (if she resists the lure of trendy pop) and TV appearances (The Tonight Show) should expand her audience far beyond cyber-downloaders. (Michael Lipton)

Sing Loud, Sing Proud (Hellcat/Epitaph)

As any son or daughter of Boston can tell you, the Irish pub is as much a fixture of the region as the Red Sox, the Democratic Party or Aerosmith. Where else would this punk-cum-jig-’n’-reel septet come from? The barked-out anthems and hyperactive stomps of the Dropkick Murphys are as much a product of the fist-in-the-air, drink-till-you-puke ethos of Tea Party City and its enormous population of descendants of Eire, as they are of Clash/Pogues/SLF exposure. In fact, this CD kicks off with “For Boston,” a brazen, echo/bombastic, ballsy chant that had this Boston-to-L.A. émigré in tears for the duration of the tune.

Proud the Murphys are of their traditional, working-man roots, and it shows in the quality of their various releases. As consistent and predictable as the folk music they’ve amped up, the Murphs have evolved a bit since their semi-breakthrough, Do or Die, four years back. They’ve augmented their punk barrage with more diversity in the jigging, adding pennywhistles and bagpipes from two new Murphys who are an official part of the band. That, and the presence of a bit of balladry, has crept in. (As well it should. What is Irish folk without maudlin themes at crawl pace?) Only a little, though, not enough to discourage their adolescent fan base or cross over to pop.

The best songs on this disc are the labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” and the trad “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” neither of which emanated from the pens of the Dropkick Murphys, so those tunes ain’t quite as Pogues-like as they ought to be. Still, Sing Loud, Sing Proud is a grand old time, a speaker buster and steering-wheel pounder of a record, with the balance between the auld and the new precarious but acceptable. It’s also part of another venerable custom — the record as primer for high-energy live show. Which means that one should be saving for the purchase of concert tickets along with the CD, for the total experience, y’see! (Johnny Angel)

Photo by Eric Antoniou

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