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NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

** Tom Rush THE VERY BEST OF TOM RUSH: NO REGRETS (Columbia)

Tom Rush never had hits per se, so this overview tries to do its job by combining signature songs with tunes that allegedly illustrate stylistic changes in the veteran folkie's sound. Distilling a 30-year career dotted with several so-so records, it works as often as it doesn't.

As a principal of the Cambridge folk-blues scene, Rush cut many authoritative performances; the disc's early-'60s stock -- from the Josh White strumming of "San Francisco Bay Blues" to the railroad ramble of "Panama Limited" -- remains vibrant. Source material changed from the black South to the Caucasian West around '67 or '68, and his take on Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" is terrific because it folds aura into arrangement. That's why the "No Regrets" included here (not the definitive Elektra version) is such a dud: grandiose backgrounds have always been the singer's foe. Rush himself chose the anthology's tracks, but instead of tripe like "Kids These Days" and "Ladies Love Outlaws," I would have opted for overlooked gems such as "Jazzman" or "Starlight."

The album falters right around the time Rush's career did. The post-Columbia tracks here are trivial, and that includes the lovely, newly recorded "River Song." On this comp, cringes and goosebumps run neck and neck.

-- Jim Macnie


**** Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited LIVE AT EL REY (Anonymous Web)

Recorded during a 1995 tour when Mapfumo had only the core of his band on hand, this spacious set delivers chimurenga ("struggle") music redux and proves that less is more. Two mbiras, iron-pronged hand pianos, do most of the leg work here, aided melodically only by one of Africa's most rock-solid bass players, Allan Mwale, who unfortunately died this fall. Mwale's limber lines marry the spidery mbira parts with Sam Mukanga's artful drumming. With no horns, guitars, keyboards or back-up singers to clutter up the works, Mapfumo delivers spare, honest renditions of classics ("Hwahwa," "Pfumvu Paruzevha") and also pillars of the traditional mbira repertoire ("Mahororo," "Nyama Musango"). Only "Chikende," a song built around guitar and horn lines, falls short in this setting. If you have ever been moved by one of Mapfumo's many recordings or concert appearances, you owe it to yourself to hear this set -- it's ground zero for one of the most original and enduring sounds in African pop.

-- Banning Eyre


*** The Church A BOX OF BIRDS (Thirsty Ear)

As '80s hair metal returns, the resurrection of the Church's slam 'n' glam version of psychedelic pop is awfully refreshing. Last year's Hologram of Baal found the band diving back into their own realm of lyric and sonic mysticism. This time the territory is more familiar: a collection of covers that ranges from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band to Iggy Pop.

Ig's "The Endless Sea" is an especially beautiful excursion, Steve Kilbey intoning its dour exorcism as Marty Willson-Piper's guitars sail out sheets of sound. The take on Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" is hard and faithful right up to its instrumental break, when Piper lays a feedback-soaked solo over a chiming, churning rhythm bed, throwing in volume swells and rivulets of delay until he's built a perfect space in which to get lost. That's always been the best thing about the Church -- the way their sound, including Kilbey's warm baritone, can transport listeners outside of themselves when conditions are right. Here, Tom Verlaine's "Friction," Ultravox's "Hiroshima Mon Amour," George Harrison's "It's All Too Much" -- really, all 10 songs -- make a consistent pitch for out-of-body travel.

-- Ted Drozdowski


** Save Ferris MODIFIED (Epic)

As purveyors of cheap '80s nostalgia -- their name comes from John Hughes, they got on the radio with a cover of "Come On Eileen" -- Save Ferris come off even less legit than your typical Cali ska-punk band. So it's fitting that they open Modified, their second disc, with "Turn It Up," a synth-powered ode to cranking the car stereo that puts actual ska and punk on the back burner in favor of hard, '80s-sounding guitar pop. You don't need any integrity to play this stuff. It sure helps to sound cheerful, though, and "Turn It Up" aside, guitarist Brian Mashburn's songs are too grouchy to send anyone lunging for the volume knob. Mashburn does grouchy rather nicely on "Let Me In," a bombastic rewrite of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" that's a worthwhile attempt at a No Doubt-style adult contemporary crossover. And "One More Try" crams a lot of string-drenched sadness into its short running time. It's the up-tempo tracks that get tiresome -- whether she's angry, sulking, or both, bland singer Monique Powell can't sustain interest in Mashburn's multiple meditations on post-break-up angst. Let's just say Gwen Stefani has nothing to worry about.

-- Sean Richardson


** Lil Wayne THA BLOCK IS HOT (Cash Money)

You can't call Lil Wayne's debut album overproduced without sounding foolish. After all, the New Orleans-based label Cash Money (also home to Lil Wayne's group, the Hot Boy$) has made a virtue of excess with a series of flashy, gimmicky, ultra-disposable hit singles.

But even by these decadent standards, Tha Block Is Hot lays it on a bit thick. The 15-year-old Wayne is often drowned out by keyboards, and his high-pitched drawl echoes around the beat like a talking drum. Sometimes, this works to terrific effect: when Wayne shouts "Come on! Come on! Come on, nigga!", his voice is nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding gunshots and video-game noises; and "Enemy Turf" adds labelmate Juvenile's rubber-cement vocals, an acoustic guitar, and some faux steel drums to Cash Money's trademark double-speed breaks. On the other hand, the gloomy "Watcha Wanna Do" is tedious, and "High Beamin' " is a woozy DJ Quik knockoff. By the time he's done, Lil Wayne has produced a horrid entry in the Latin-pop sweepstakes, Cash Money's first ballad (it's not nearly as bad as you'd think), and a baffling motivational number called "Up to Me" (over a schmaltzy keyboard bed and a brisk beat, the rapper tells himself, "It's up to you, Wayne/Stay up and keep it real"). Most rap albums are destined to sound kind of silly in a few years, but this one sounds kind of silly right now: Cash Money has taken planned obsolescence to a whole new level.

-- Kelefa Sanneh


**1/2 Don Walser HERE'S TO COUNTRY MUSIC (Sire)

Walser's a retired gent, mid 60s now, ex-Texas National Guard, his ears damaged by all those weekend amplifiers, his knees made undependable by the considerable joy he takes in food. So he sits when he sings, but his voice is still in working order, his heart's in the right place, and his notion of country music settles in the 1940s.

And much like Moses Rascoe -- the retired truck driver/Piedmont-style bluesman discovered in Pennsylvania in the late '80s -- Walser is as close as we now get to the real thing. Music, for both men, was a hobby not allowed to interfere with the business of living and raising families, until retirement. Walser follows in the vast wake of Texas dancehall stars like Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, and Ray Price. He's in their spirit, not in their league, but today -- when oldstyle is somehow avant-garde in country music -- his is a fresh and welcome voice, yodels and all. Here's to Country Music shuffles gracefully through the Hank Thompson title track, bows toward Floyd Tillman, and duets with Crystal Gayle. Walser's Pure Texas Band, including legends Buddy Emmons and Buddy Spicher, is spot-on, and this is easily Walser's best recorded outing. His is not a great voice, simply a very good one doing yeoman's work in hard times.

-- Grant Alden


*** Carl Cox PHUTURE 2000 (Moonshine)

In six extended and segued tracks DJ Carl Cox presents his hard-edged, trance-toned, acid version of house, the dark, flamboyant beat music that has dominated dance-club rhythms for more than a decade. Cox's mixes flow, as one New York Times critic put it, "with a minimum of effort," but his energetic program never sounds laid-back. Still, the hardness of his music veers far away from the joyfully plush and soulful deeps of most house music. The bitter tones, putdowns, and minimalist rhythms that constitute "Been Smarter," "The Mission," and "Yeah" fume with anger, frustration, hard sweat, and constant work. Even "Another Place," an orchestral cauldron of synthesizers and mockery, and the CD's title track, a whiplash fantasy of Kraftwerk-derived rhythm overlaid with distant, icy boy voice, belie the sweet dreamworks that orient most disco songs dedicated to elsewheres and futurism. For Cox, other worlds and the future are rhythmic imperatives, fraught with hurry, conflict, and confusion -- too much confusion, unfortunately, to sustain the beat upon which the spiritual credibility of house music depends.

-- Michael Freedberg


*** Blinker the Star AUGUST EVERYWHERE (DreamWorks)

Hard to believe Blinker the Star frontguy Jordon Zadorozny used to be in a Pixies-ish rock band called Blinker the Star. Despite a nod to his punky pals in Hole (he shares a writing credit with the band on Celebrity Skin and replicates that tune's guitar riff on August's opening track), all vestiges of the corrosive old Blinker are gone. Zadorozny has abandoned the angular rhythms and abraded guitar textures that marked his group's last effort, A Bourgeois Kitten, in favor of a lush pop approach that mines the kind of harmony-and-heartache territory tapped by folks like Jason Falkner and Fountains of Wayne.

Like FOW, Blinker bury cynicism and dark dreams inside deceptively fluffy pillows of strings -- arranged by Beck's dad, you trivia buffs will want to know -- and mountain-high, Spector-esque production that sounds positively luscious. These are bummers you can hum along to. The synth-and-piano-laced opener, "September Already," correlates the end of summer to a waning romance. And the towering majesty of "There's Nowhere You Can Hide" is actually about a dysfunctional relationship between a speed freak and a junkie. Zadorozny doesn't copyright his songs as "Satin Doombox" for nothing.

-- Jonathan Perry


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