Mississippi John Hurt
This 15-song, 15-artist tribute to the music of late, great bluesman Mississippi John Hurt is the latest installment of Vanguard's recent reexploration of the Hurt legacy, which began with the 1998 one-disc anthology Rediscovered. That 24-song compilation deserves to be an essential part of any record collection, but for listeners who wanted more, Vanguard released the three-disc The Complete Studio Recordings last year, repackaging '60s albums Today!, The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, and Last Sessions.
The body of work collected on those reissues is one of the most distinctive the blues has thus far produced -- warm, gentle, wise -- and features some of the most endearing compositions in all of American popular song. With such a rich body of work still obscure to the average music fan, Hurt would seem an ideal candidate for a tribute record, and Avalon Blues is an admirable effort. But tribute albums are still a dicey proposition: I've only heard one great one, 1997's The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, and if Hurt's material is as worthy of investigation as Rodgers', the key difference between the two albums is that Avalon Blues doesn't boast quite as A-list a lineup as the Bob Dylan-produced Rodgers tribute.
With all the source material of similar style and quality, it's no surprise that the artists who stand out the most on Avalon Blues are those who are most compelling on their own terms or who -- for better or worse -- invest Hurt's songs with their own personalities.
Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch have both been accused of pretension and overly studied vocals (though seldom by the same critics), but a comparison of Williams' "Angels Laid Him Away" and Welch's "Beulah Land" illustrates the difference between perfectionist genius (Williams) and hopeless mimicry (Welch). Williams owns "Angels Laid Him Away" so completely that if you didn't know otherwise, you'd never guess that it isn't one of her own songs. Welch's "Beulah Land" (and is there any doubt that she would choose such an "old-timey" title to cover?) is a painstaking but hollow reproduction, just the kind of arch performance that's won her hosannahs from roots fetishists over the last few years.
Elsewhere, Alvin Youngblood Hart is great as usual with his Memphis-recorded, one-man-band take on "Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me," while Victoria Williams, whose skittish innocence can be charming in some settings, turns in a nearly unlistenable performance with her too-precious take on the Hurt classic "Since I've Laid My Burden Down." And Beck's solid, straight-faced take on "Stagger Lee" (recorded at Sun Studios in 1994) is highly recommended to fans of his acoustic K Records album One Foot In the Grave.
Folkie Bill Morrisey ("Pay Day") and eclectic bluesman Taj Mahal ("My Creole Belle") probably owe more to Hurt than anyone else on Avalon Blues, and both acquit themselves well. Of the journeymen roots performers who make up the bulk of the record and whose performances convey less personality, Chris Smither and John Hiatt come across best, offering fine takes on "Frankie & Albert" and "I'm Satisfied," respectively, while Bruce Cockburn ("Avalon, My Home Town") and Mark Selby (whose gruff vocal and insistent backbeat are unwelcome additions to perhaps Hurt's most charming song, "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor") don't fare quite as well.
In all, Avalon Blues is well worth your time but not if you haven't "rediscovered" Hurt himself first. -- Chris Herrington
British Empire and Beyond 1965-69
As the follow-up to the landmark 1998 four-disc re-release of Lenny Kaye's 1972 garage-rock comp Nuggets, Nuggets II follows the global dissemination of four pop meta-themes: simplicity ("Three chords and the truth"), brevity ("in three minutes or less"), misanthropy ("'cos I'm so misunderstood") and -- will we ever learn? -- misogyny ("and my woman's such a cold bitch"). It's also an encomium for the singles culture of the '60s, which was also the last time white foreigners earnestly attempted to replicate the nasty electric rhythm and blues of Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and other luminaries.
However, rhythm and blues is just a starting point. The snarl and pout of the pre-'65 Stones is all over this superb box set, but so are the noise of the Stooges' debut and the sonic shimmer of Hendrix's ballads. Amazingly, the results are never nostalgic. Nuggets II is a tougher listen than its predecessor in every respect: more songs, fewer recognizable hits, more feedback, fewer ballads, more copies of songs you've heard before (Procol Harum and the Who are two more apparently bottomless fountains of rip-off), and more evidence that anyone -- anyone in the universe -- can make great rock-and-roll. Music this brittle, propulsive, corrosive, and obstinately mid-fi can start to dismantle your brain after more than two consecutive discs' worth, but once your freakout resistors and retroactive PC receptors are burned out, the shoulda-been hits never stop.
The annual flood of legitimate reissues and repackaged product virtually guarantees that you could enjoy great, unheard music every year without actually buying anything from the year you're living in. Thus, tiny, specialized niches are too easy to fall in these days -- rock-and-roll generalists are becoming as rare as generalist historians. So generalists and collectors alike should rejoice at this spirited, revelatory revision of rock-and-roll history. Unfortunately, prima facie evidence of a vibrant international pop underground that stretches back at least 40 years shouldn't be such a specialized item. But seldom has consumer courage reaped such rich dividends. Points of entry, two of which are on the fourth disc: The Master's Apprentices' "War or Hands of Time," the Mops' "I'm Just a Mops," Los Shakers' "Break It All," the Marmalade's "I See the Rain," and the Easybeats' ebullient classic "Friday on My Mind." Actually, you may have heard that last one. -- Addison Engelking
Lee Roy Parnell
Although Lee Roy Parnell's past work sometimes deteriorated into country-rock schlock, it was always redeemed by his considerable guitar talents. Parnell has that rare Santana-ish ability to make one note soar and shimmer over everything else, and his slidework manages to conjure up shades of Duane Allman yet be innovative at the same time. With Tell the Truth, his first recording for an independent label, he's finally hit his stride. Once again, he tackles gospel, blues, country, and rock. But in a smart move, Parnell hooked up with veteran songwriter Dan Penn for several tracks, and the result is an album that's carried by songs of substance as well as his versatile guitar. In addition, Parnell recruited the grand duchess and duke of honky tonk and country blues, Bonnie Bramlett and Delbert McClinton, for some feisty duets, as well as ace fingerpicker Keb' Mo' for some down-home acoustic blues.
Parnell reminds me of a Texas version of Sonny Landreth, another full-steam-ahead rocker whose songs are driven by ferocious guitar work and who also mines his regional roots for inspiration. Like Landreth, Parnell can rip it up most righteously, especially with McClinton on the barrelhouse boogie track "South By Southwest." But he also has the potential to go further, showing his soulful side on a ballad with Bramlett and with the very Southern guitar that graces the sensual ending of "Guardian Angel." Despite a few stilted moments on one confessional track, Tell the Truth is a fresh start that shows off Parnell's many talents to perfection. -- Lisa Lumb
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.