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New CDs 

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Keeper of the fire: Steve Earle.

Perfect Pairs

New CDs offer complementary summer listening

By Greg Cahill

Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II Elektra

Various Artists 'Til We Outnumber 'Em: The Songs of Woody Guthrie Righteous Babe

OK, THIS IS AN IDEA that sounded better the first time around, but there's still plenty to love about Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II. British agit-pop star Billy Bragg returns with another set of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie tunes culled from the late folk pioneer's archive and given the royal alt-country treatment by critics' darlings Wilco. There are lots of gems here. It's a real testament to Guthrie's depth as a lyricist that these songs are so remarkably fresh. The lead track, "Airline to Heaven," sounds like a lost Dylan song. The ragged "Feed of Man" is Wilco at their untamed best. Indeed, the strength of these songs speaks volumes about the legacy of America's greatest popular songwriter, especially when you consider these songs languished for 40 years. 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, recorded at the 1996 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fundraiser for the Guthrie Museum, is a reverential hootenanny with Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Ani DeFranco, David Pirner, and Tim Robbins. It's a campfire sing-along straight from the heart.

Robert Lockwood, Jr. Delta Crossroads Telarc Blues

Peter Green Hot Foot Powder Artisan

BLUES LEGEND Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs, but left a legacy as sprawling as the Mississippi Delta that now bears his bones. His short, troubled life--and mysterious poisoning in 1938--have fueled the imaginations of authors, filmmakers, and songwriters for more than 60 years. While he remains enigmatic, Johnson once imparted his trade secrets to the then teen-aged Lockwood, his quasi-stepson. At 85, Lockwood's voice falters on this collection of mostly Johnson tunes, played on a 12-string acoustic guitar. Yet there is an undeniable authenticity here that often transcends age and infirmity, especially in Lockwood's steady-rolling fretwork. Guitarist and vocalist Peter Green, who founded the original Fleetwood Mac, has never sounded better than on his new tribute to Johnson. He handles Johnson's songs like the sacred tablets, but never allows himself to be overwhelmed. Sounding every bit like a young Eric Clapton (and Green can give Clapton a run for his money), Green is joined by special guests Buddy Guy, Honeyboy Edwards (a onetime Johnson sidekick), Dr. John, Otis Rush, Joe Louis Walker, and Hubert Sumlin. Johnson's canon has been covered hundreds of times, but seldom as satisfyingly.

Bebel Gilberto Tanto Tempo Six Degrees

Zuco 103 Outro Lado Six Degrees

THERE'S just something so soothing about summer sambas. And no one sings them as languidly as Brazilian beauty Bebel Gilberto. The daughter of guitarist Jão Gilberto, one of the most revered musicians in Brazil, Bebel is probably best known to U.S. audiences for her reinterpretations of classic bossa-nova tunes on 1998's Next Stop Wonderland soundtrack, her 1997 rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" on Kenny G's platinum-selling Classics in the Key of G, and her duet with Brazilian composer Cazusa on 1996's Red Hot + Rio AIDS benefit compilation. Ah, the loving language of the bossa nova. On the other hand, Zuco 103 will kick your summer into overdrive with driving jungle rhythms, hip-hop beats, and electronic samples. This Dutch and German hybrid falls a bit flat when they play it straight, but things rise to a new level as they pump up the jam with speed raps, sassy '70s soul-jazz, or drum 'n' bass grooves.

Dwight Yoakam Warner

Steve Earle Transcendental Blues Artemis

THESE COUNTRY singer/songwriters both emerged from the mid-'80s neo-traditionalist movement (which dead-ended when Garth Brooks showed up on the scene). Then their fortunes parted ways. Yoakam became the darling of Nashville's young elite, selling 17 million records before faltering artistically as he embraced the swing craze and a crass commercialism. This oddly packaged (a plain jewel case with a simple mailing label displaying the title) and strangely named release (speaking of crass commercialism, the title is intended to steer fans to Dwight's own Web venture) is just Dwight accompanying himself on guitar while reworking his original hits. That's a mixed blessing. It's unadulterated Yoakam--that's good. But it's also a lo-fi rehash of songs we already know and love. Let's just hope it helps Yoakam find his way back home. Meanwhile, Earle is a Nashville renegade who has crafted a gloriously introspective, rather Beatlesque bluegrass album--replete with baroque strings and Indian drones--that redefines the genre and fulfills the dream of the neo-traditionlists. The themes are familiar to Earle fans--anti-death penalty songs and small-town laments--but Earle's twangy arrangements and assured songwriting are imbued with a fiery passion. Yoakam's got a lot of catching up to do.

From the June 15-21, 2000, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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