Alison Krauss and Union Station
It's Krauss' simple, precise soprano, which occasionally soars with bell-like beauty, that makes her an artist for the world rather than just a tiny corner of it. Krauss' vocals are as piercing as ever on New Favorite, but as is a standard ratio on Union Station albums, Krauss only sings lead on eight of 13 tracks. That Krauss is so willing to share space with her bandmates despite her considerable personal stardom says a lot for her own lack of ego and commitment to collective creation, but for listeners outside the bluegrass world it still means that New Favorite is only two-thirds of an album. The cuts that don't feature Krauss are first-rate as genre pieces -- the instrumental "Choctaw Hayride" showcases the nimble work of world-class pickers Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Ron Block (banjo), while guitarist Dan Tyminski's lead vocals on four other cuts are suitably high and lonesome -- but that's all they are.
Fans may have expected Krauss and company to make a more "old-timey" record after the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but New Favorite is a very modern-sounding bluegrass record. Krauss' vocals -- especially on "The Lucky One" and "Crazy Faith" -- provide most of the sparks; she's such an ace singer that not even a Dan Fogelberg cover ("Stars") can hold her back. -- Chris Herrington
The obscure grammar of British dance music doesn't translate well to American ears, so Craig David's roots in two-step will prove virtually meaningless on these shores. In the American music climate, his debut album, Born To Do It, which has sold millions in Europe and Asia, will likely be perceived either as R&B or as bubblegum pop.
As an R&B crooner, David has neither the audacity of sensitive thugs such as R. Kelly nor the gritty soulfulness of bohos such as D'Angelo, and his beats are too thin and calculated to stand up to hip-hop artists such as Outkast. David obviously takes his cues from American artists, but he either comes across as hopelessly out of date (dropping Craig Mack's mid-'90s single "Flava in Ya Ear") or just plain silly. For instance, "Booty Man," his cringe-worthy reimagining of "Candy Man," is flabby compared to classic butt songs like "Baby Got Back."
David's music, however, does fare much better against that made by domestic boybands. Next to the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the 20-year-old Brit's songs sound truly soulful and almost revolutionary. "Fill Me In," "Walking Away," and "7 Days" boast better and more insistent hooks than anything teen pop has given us in the past four years. Still, like those pop singers trying to write their own music, David has room to improve, particularly when it comes to his all-grown-up loverman image. Too often, his boasts of sexual prowess and chick magnetism overwhelm the innocent pop pleasures of the songs and border on creepy and predatory.
As Born To Do It is exported to America, many of its pleasures may wind up lost in translation. Too pop to appeal to American R&B fans and too R&B for the teen-pop crowd, David may prove to be a hard sell on this side of the Atlantic.
-- Stephen Deusner
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros
With Global A Go-Go, Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros finally get it right. Although it explores the same territory as their last release, the world-music romp of 1999's Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, with this album the former Clash frontman and his latest band traverse it with considerably more skill and finesse. A few years of playing together as a band and touring have brought a cohesiveness and focus to the music that was missing in their previous ragtag debut. As he's gotten older, Strummer's tendency to preach has also mercifully waned, though he's still inserting wry and often hilarious social commentary into his lyrics.
Strummer and his London bandmates surf the wave of global music, dipping into whatever suits them and fighting the "blanding out" (as Strummer calls it) of the contemporary music scene. The Mescaleros mix low tech and high tech with marvelous results, using synthesizers and sampling as well as witch-doctor bells and a cardboard box. From the blast of guitar funk on "Cool 'N' Out" to the spaghetti western touches on the title track (hokey the last time around but perfect here), the album blasts off and almost never slows down. The only downer is the closing track, a cover of an old Celtic fiddle tune, which is pleasant enough but at 17 minutes-plus starts to resemble a drunken ceilidh. For the most part, though, Global A Go- Go hums with unsurpassed energy and vitality. With an ambience so heady, even songs set in Chinese take-aways assume mythic proportions. Which is exactly how rock-and-roll should be. -- Lisa Lumb
Records like this will remind you that there are only so many hours in the day. Rebecca Gates' former enterprise, the Spinanes, was nothing more than a pleasant mediocrity. They had their moments of inspiration while being drug through the '90s by Sub Pop, specifically before drummer Scott Plouf left to drum for Built To Spill. But overall the Spinanes were a flicker amongst fire.
Relocating from Seattle to Chicago brought in the usual suspects for the last proper Spinanes album (1998's Arches and Aisles) and this, Gates' first proper solo album, Ruby Series. The omnipresent John McIntire (Sea and Cake, Tortoise) shows up to hand out his obvious dregs in the form of some trampled-on beats and flourishes then presumably proceeds to sit around checking his e-mail for the rest of the recording session. The whole thing is a vapid, tired affair that sounds like a token "weird" record that Quincy Jones might have made for Suzanne Vega sometime around 1988. The only feeling or soul within miles is saved for the last, spacious track, which might have made for a nice split single or compilation item but instead closes out a pathetic example of a semicompetent songwriter trying to "get with the times" after the "times" have long disappeared. -- Andrew Earles