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BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS “LIFELINE”
(Virgin, $18.98) www.benharper.net

Upon finishing a nine month tour, Ben Harper and his band, The Innocent Criminals, went straight into a Paris studio and recorded “Lifeline”…all in a mere 7 days. Makes sense since most bands are at their strongest after having spent so much time performing together. What the self-monikered “Studio Gang” came up with is a back-to-basics folk/soul/rock record. The classic “Fool for a Lonesome Train” echoes with the winsome sounds of The Band while “Needed You Tonight” is an intense passionate, rockin’ plea of lost love. Harper’s vocals on “Younger Than Today” recalls the poetry of Cat Stevens while “Put It On Me” channels the pop funk of Bill Withers that’ll have listeners groovin’ right along with The Innocent Criminals, one of the tightest groups you’ll ever hear. The sole instrumental, “Paris Sunrise #7”, features the high lonesome sparkle of guitar strings bending and dancing, demonstrating the astonishing beauty in the sound (and the spaces in between) just one guitar can create. Minus the typical months of overdubbing and heavy knob twiddling at the mixing board, “Lifeline” is so elegant in its simplicity and a throwback to when songs, no matter the genre, shined with universal appeal.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: SONGBIRD: RARE TRACKS & FORGOTTEN GEMS
(Rhino, $74.98) www.emmylou.net

Emmylou Harris has rounded up outtakes, live cuts and personal favorites from her nearly 40 year career for this massive 4 CD/1 DVD, 78-song box set. The collection plays out in chronological order starting with an unreleased version of “Clocks” from her 1969 solo debut “Gliding Bird”. With a girlish soprano, the 22-year old Harris sings a sweet, Celtic tune akin to the folk sounds of the day. She avoided the fate of becoming a second-rate Joni Mitchell when she joined forces with Gram Parsons two years later. Parsons schooled Harris in traditional country music and singing harmonies, all exemplified brilliantly in the duo’s cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night”. Harris took what she learned and ran with it. She can move the spirit on the traditional gospel song “Jordan” (with Johnny Cash), break your heart with beauty on “Pearl” (live in Toronto in 2000), or burn the barn down on “Ooh Las Vegas” (live in L.A. in 1975). The remaining discs showcase her Trio collaborations with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, her career-shifting work with Daniel Lanois on 1995’s “Wrecking Ball” and covers of songs by Guy Clark, Ralph Stanley, Townes Van Zandt, the McGarrigle sisters and more. This enormous collection of Harris’ angelic talent is American music done at its best.

MAVIS STAPLES “WE’LL NEVER TURN BACK”
(Anti- Records, $17.98) www.mavisstaples.com

An intense urgency drives the dozen freedom songs sung by soul/gospel great Mavis Staples on “We’ll Never Turn Back”. Staples, whose musical journey started in the early 60s with her family The Staple Singers and their work with the Civil Rights movement, drives this collection with a passion fueled by anger and frustration and by someone who has had a front row seat to society’s injustices. “My Own Eyes”, a song Staples co-wrote with producer Ry Cooder, is a Sunday service testimony to such witnessing. “In The Mississippi River”, written in 1964, is a heart-wrenching account of the search for three civil rights workers who went missing that same year. What most news accounts didn’t reveal was the searchers discovery of dozens of bodies, African-Americans who had been bound and lynched. The dark undercurrent is lightened by the funk groove of the hopeful “This Little Light of Mine” and “99 and ½”. Staples is joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the original members of the Freedom Singers, a vocal group formed in the 60s to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “We’ll Never Turn Back” is a must listen, soul-stirring lesson in America’s living history.

PORTER WAGONER “WAGONMASTER”
(Anti- Records, $17.98) www.porterwagoner.com

80 years old and the Nudie suit still fits! Country legend Porter Wagoner cuts quite a figure on the cover of “Wagonmaster”. Looking off in the distance with perfectly coiffed hair and wearing a bedazzled suit (holding a bedazzled guitar!), the Grand Ole Opry star is impeccably clad as he was in the 1950s at the start of his career. “Wagonmaster” marks Wagoner’s return to country after years of recording gospel, thanks to musician Marty Stuart who produced the CD. Presented like a live show, Stuart sings the first track, a 47 second intro letting listeners know “the Wagonmaster’s comin!” Music purists will reel with delight when they hear Wagoner’s clear strong vocals riding alongside pedal steel guitars and fiddles, and the Ozark native’s signature recitations. Wagoner shines on the timeless country tune “Fool Like Me”, heartily preaches on “Satan’s River” and gets down and dirty on “Hotwired”. “Committed to Parkview” is a song Johnny Cash wrote specifically for Wagoner, who like Cash, was sent to the Nashville facility because he “went off the beaten path for a bit”. Stuart and Wagoner end “the show” with a conversation about Hank Williams and Wagoner reciting the lyrics to “Men with Broken Hearts”. It’s a lovely moment to hear such poetry from an authentic country legend.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AND LISTENING:

THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW: THE BEST OF JOHNNY CASH 1969-1971
(Sony Columbia Legacy, $39.98)

With the carriage of a preacher and the spark of a natural born showman, American audiences welcomed Johnny Cash in to their homes each week during the 58 episode run of CBS’s “The Johnny Cash Show”. Priceless footage of Bob Dylan (“Girl From The North Country”), The Everly Brothers (“Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine”), Louis Armstrong (“Blue Yodel #9) and a baby-faced Linda Ronstadt (“I Will Never Marry”) singing live on this extraordinary 2 DVD set previously only available for viewing at NYC’s Museum of Broadcasting. Neil Young, Charley Pride, The Carter Family and Loretta Lynn are among the 64 stellar performances of what was primetime’s golden hour.

STEVE EARLE “WASHINGTON SQUARE SERENADE”
(New West Records, $16.98) www.steveearle.com

Like many a troubadour before him, Steve Earle has relocated to New York City, Greenwich Village to be exact…on the very street where Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend posed for that famous photo on the cover of “The Freewheelin Bob Dylan” in 1962. Fitting since “Washington Square Serenade” is a tribute to that folk era. More personal than political, Earle revives “Tennessee Blues” from his 1986 debut “Guitar Town” with an acoustic arrangement, duets with wife #7, musician Allison Moorer, on “Days Aren’t Long Enough” and covers Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole”.

REBA McENTIRE “REBA DUETS”
(MCA Nashville, $13.98) www.reba.com

Country star Reba McEntire joins forces with Faith Hill, Don Henley, Carole King and more for her first ever album of duets. The idea came from her husband/manager who thought it would be a good project for her last album owed to MCA. Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn agreed but on the condition that he and McEntire write a song together. The two came up with the velvety “Does the Wind Still Blow in Oklahoma?” McEntire and Kelly Clarkson slick up her hit “Because of You” and wild card, Justin Timberlake leaves sexy back with oh, so quiet harmonies on “The Only Promise That Remains”.

ABRA MOORE “ON THE WAY”
(Sarathan Records, $14.98) www.abramoore.com

Singer/songwriter Abra Moore’s initial success came ten years ago with the single “Four Leaf Clover” and a coveted slot on the Lilith Fair tour. “On The Way” marks the return of Moore’s ethereal, poetic whisper. The deliberately slow title track resonates with a wistful trumpet mirroring Moore’s own vocals while “Sorry” brings a jazz arrangement to her earthy, folk sound. The standout cut, “No Turning Back”, is a serene soundscape with lyrics about winter and all the stillness it evokes. Describing her songs as “little snapshots of where I’m at”, Moore’s happiness is lovingly woven throughout “On The Way”.

 

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 75 - September 8476
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