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JULY 17, 2000: 

**1/2 B.B. King and Eric Clapton RIDING WITH THE KING (Reprise)

Now that he's collaborated with everyone from D'Angelo to the Royal Monaco Orchestra, it makes altogether too much sense for the King of the Blues to get together with his British counterpart. King and Clapton are among the most influential electric-guitarists ever, and their styles are so distinctive that it's fun and easy to decipher who's playing what on Riding with the King.

The combination is not always electric or electrifying. The two offer nice acoustic takes on two old country blues, including an excellent version of Big Maceo's "Worried Life Blues"; a few of the electric cuts, however, come off as clunkers, including the inoffensive but uninspiring title tune (written years ago by John Hiatt), which includes an embarrassing scripted little voiceover rhyme from B.B. Still, there are more high points than you might expect. The 75-year-old King's volcanic shout is in better shape than it's been on other recent discs, and Clapton's singing has only grown deeper over the years. A slow version of King's chitlin-circuit era "When My Heart Beats like a Hammer" is a guitarologist's delight: Clapton stings like a bee while B.B. plays as sweet as honey. -- Bill Kisliuk

***1/2 Chris Smither LIVE AS I'LL EVER BE (Hightone)

This CD casts its net over concert recordings from '96, '97, and '99 for a best-of collection of material from the second wind of Smither's career. After his promising emergence in the '70s, when he penned hits for Bonnie Raitt and making his own mark as a guitarist, Smither hit the skids for a decade. In the mid '80s he bested the bottle and resumed, writing beautiful blues-drenched ballads that have their own sort of wistful existentialism. Tunes like "No Love Today" (inspired by the call of a street vendor), "Link of Chain," and "Can't Shake These Blues" seem to cry out for clarity in their search for a man's role in the universe -- or at least within his own life.

Smither's got a sense of humor, too, and it shows often in his writing, even as he dips into his vat of gritty human pain to make an insightful observation on the passing of love ("Winsome Smile") or the erosion of spirit caused by weakness and self-doubt ("Cave Man"). This is deep stuff, with a true artist's verbal and six-string literacy to match -- to say nothing of Smither's voice, which carries a great burden in its dry edges and husky tone. Expect a local CD-release concert as fall arrives. -- Ted Drozdowski

*** Rose Polenzani ANYBODY (Daemon)

The simple tinkling of an acoustic guitar playing unexpected chord changes, a poetic vision drenched with religious imagery, and a wistful vocal style make Rose Polenzani a songwriter to watch. "Or," a song about a woman balanced on the edge of suicide, benefits from the mournful harmonies of Indigo Girls, but it's Polenzani's delicate voice that cuts to the bone. "Olga's Birthday," a disturbing ballad about a woman discovered in the arms of another woman, is as bleak and ominous as anything Gillian Welch has recorded, but Polenzani manages a happy ending without letting go of the song's unbearable tension.

Like Welch, Polenzani is drawn to the rhythms of the country blues and ancient murder ballads that form the bedrock of much American folk and country music, but her ornate vocals add tiny sparks of light to her dark visions. She recently won the ASCAP Sammy Cahn lyricist award, and Voices on the Verge, a singer/songwriter group she's part of, are cutting an album for Rykodisc, so this unknown isn't going to be maintaining her low profile much longer. -- J. Poet

*** T-Model Ford SHE AIN'T NONE OF YOUR'N (Fat Possum)

On his third album in less than three years, Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford comes closer than he ever has to capturing the raw groove and hypnotic feel of his live performances. The driving tempos favored by Ford and his partner on drums Spam match the rate at which Ford's releasing albums these days. And if it seems he's trying to make up for lost time, well, this 78-year-old didn't even start playing guitar until he was in his late 50s.

She Ain't None of Your'n opens with some typical Fat Possum fare: a guttural, clanging guitar coughs and spits all over a juke-joint boogie rhythm as Ford offers some questionable relationship advice in "So She Asked Me So I Told Her." Ford and Spam go on to offer up a couple roughed-up standards -- "Sail On," "How Many More Years"; "Take a Ride with Me" brings to mind the gnarled hill-country blues of fellow Fat Possum artist R.L. Burnside. The late harmonica virtuoso Frank Frost of the Jelly Roll Kings sits in on a pair of tracks, but there's never a doubt that She Ain't None of Your'n is Ford's forum -- yet another opportunity for him to offer up a heaping portion of his "un-urban" blues stylings in all their lo-fi glory. -- Jon Marko

*** Duke Heitger RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS (Fantasy)

Don't let the jitterbugging cat and kitten on the front cover, or the endorsement from former Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell, fool you: this is not big bad voodoo jump blues. Rather, Heitger, who himself played trumpet on the Zippers' Hot, has zeroed in on easy, precise '30s-style Basie swing. That means classic riff tunes from Lester Young ("Jammin' the Blues") and Gene Krupa ("Swing Is Here"), and Ellington in a New Orleans mood ("Stevedore Stomp"). This is a little big band -- eight or nine pieces on most tracks -- for maximum intimacy and mobility. Heitger has an explosive, ripping trumpet style that's out of Armstrong by way of Roy Eldridge, and his soloists are all equally capable -- the liquid Goodman runs of clarinettist Tom Fischer, the broad trombone of "guest" Dan Barrett (who also arranges), the authoritative stride of pianist David Boeddinghaus. Heitger sings with the boozy warmth of Jack Teagarden after hours ("Yours and Mine"); Rebecca Kilgore mixes the "white" conversational diction of Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day. The band play all "covers," so whereas Maxwell and like-minded Zipper associate Andrew Bird use ancient styles as a key to their own invented worlds, Heitger here comes off as a preservationist. Which isn't necessarily bad -- when you hear the leader leap out of a break on a cloud of backing reeds, you probably won't care. -- Jon Garelick

*** Nerf Herder HOW TO MEET GIRLS (Honest Don's)

According to his ultra-catchy confessions, Nerf Herder frontman Parry Grip works in the back of Radio Shack (when he's not in the back of the bus "with the retarded kids"), and he wants to smell his crush's underpants (even though he wet his own "at the high-school dance"). This potty-mouthed Peter Pan would sooner grow up than pen a sincere word -- or play more than three chords at a time.

How To Meet Girls is pop punk all the way through, even "Vivian," a tune about starting a new-wave band. The frothy musical formula recalls Weezer and Fountains of Wayne, but the teenage conceit is pure Donnas -- except Nerf Herder are half as good-looking and twice as old. No matter. Lines like "I hope I'm not out of place but/Courtney Love sit on my face," are charming even given the male lechery. In fact, the sliminess (like the Bloodhound Gang's politically incorrect put-on) is what's so bewitching, tempered as it is with innocent self-depreciation. -- Nick Catucci

** Hefner BOXING HEFNER (Too Pure/Beggars Banquet)

The London-based Hefner are the latest offering from Too Pure, the sturdy label that has served as the incubator of British pop nonconformism. But unlike such current and former label brethren as Stereolab, Laika, Bows, P.J. Harvey, and the vibrant new instrumental act Billy Mahonie, Hefner are a sonically straightforward, if droll, literate guitar band. Nothing more, nothing less.

The whimsical, multi-entendre Boxing Hefner, with a cartoon female pugilist on its cover, is a catch-up document for the newly initiated, compiling singles, BBC sessions, and other errata lost between the band's acclaimed two albums. Although they're comically self-described as a folk act, the band's slipshod guitar rhythms, as on "Pull Yourself Together" and "Christian Girls," suggest the Velvet Underground with a giddier disposition. Songwriter Darren Hayman's harried vocals recall the pasty, unnerved vocalise of the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano. Highlight "Lee Remick" (no relation to the Go Betweens classic of the same name) is a pensive ballad with a deft touch of pedal steel. -- Patrick Bryant

*1/2 The Delgados THE GREAT EASTERN (Mantra/Beggars Banquet)

Scottish bands like Bis and Belle & Sebastian make a virtue of their youth; the likes of Hefner, Magoo, Mogwai, and the underground moguls (behind the Chemikal Underground label) in the Delgados form an undistinguished swamp of twentysomethings unable (or unwilling) to make anything out of their crushed optimism or indie virtues or whatever impels them to wander across a full-length. In short, they can be plain old irritating.

Album number three from the Delgados finds tag-team vocalists Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock at least acknowledging that hell is other people, even though a line like "No one, I mean, no one can depress me more than I can" reflects the worst in self-absorption. But the lack of narrative detail bespeaks a general disinterest in engaging the world outside their own confused heads. A tree falls in their woods and they don't much care whether anyone's around to hear it. And despite several pretty moments, a rhythm section that knew the joy of cooking as well as Belle & Sebastian would suit the Delgados much better than the tortuous phrasing and prog-like shifts and stunted tempos that show up on The Great Eastern. -- Kevin John

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