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AUGUST 30, 1999: 

**** Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko NEW ANCIENT STRINGS (Rykodisc)

In 1970, two of Mali's greatest masters of the 21-string kora -- Sidiki Diabate and Djelimadi Sissoko -- made a landmark recording. Cordes Anciennes (Ancient Strings) introduced listeners all over the world to the traditional music of Manding griots, and to one of the world's most unusual string instruments. The recording also summarized recent history, for though the kora has long been the mainstay of griot musicians in Gambia, and in Guinea Bissau, where the harp lute was invented, it was not widely played in Mali. Diabate, in particular, pioneered the use of kora as a solo instrument, and as director of the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, he did much to raise its profile in the country.

Recorded in Bamako, New Ancient Strings brings all these stories up to date. Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko are the sons of the players on the 1970 recording, and they offer versions of the same songs their fathers did, including the classics "Kaira" and "Lamban." But the art of the kora has evolved in the hands of these young players. Today there is a very distinct Malian kora tradition, and this is its most definitive statement to date. Toumani, who conceived the new arrangements, draws on his experience with musicians ranging from the new flamencans of Ketama to bluesman Taj Mahal. No kora player has ventured so far out of the old tradition, and none has brought more back. The kora's tapestry of rhythms and melodies have never sounded richer.

-- Banning Eyre

**** Hugh Ragin AN AFTERNOON IN HARLEM (Justin Time)

Hugh Ragin's new album is so accomplished, so open-hearted and generous, you have to wonder why it's been 15 years since he led a session. Ragin made a couple of albums on Cecma, an obscure Italian label; he's worked with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, in the '80s, and more recently with David Murray, but this album refuses to be held to any label as confining as "avant-garde." His quartet, with Craig Taborn on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass, and Bruce Cox on drums, and guests Murray, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and poet Amiri Baraka, share his vision, possessing the flexibility and versatility to play with equal conviction in all modes of expression.

The title track is a lyrical blues over a mellow groove that would sound at home on a classic '60s Blue Note album. "Not a Moment Too Soon" twists and sprints like any other flag-waving bebop anthem. "The Moors of Spain" straddles two worlds, using one section with chord changes and another without. Couched in Ragin's warm, bittersweet tone and innate sense of form and melody, the certifiably free-jazz numbers, "Braxton's Dues" and "Wisdom and Overstanding," sound like just another part of an African-American music continuum. Ragin's music thrives on the kind of creative freedom that really is beyond category.

-- Ed Hazell

*** Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers SPIRIT OF MUSIC (Elektra)

Ziggy Marley and his siblings shift gears slightly to present a set of mostly acoustic tunes packed with the sunny positive vibe and smooth harmony vocals that have marked their work from the beginning. True to its title, the album is primarily a meditation on the healing power of love (and ganja). "Gone Away" is an invocation of the peace and reconciliation we all hope are waiting for us at the end of life; "All I Need Is You," with its gentle Bo Diddley riddim, "You've Got My Love (All Day All Night)," and the extended groove of "Let It Go" are ethereal love songs with seductive lyrics, dub-wise production, and sassy backing vocals that stir up fond memories of I-Three. Ziggy's inflections and phrasing here recall his father's, and they probably always will. But Spirit of Music reflects how Ziggy is maturing as a songwriter, producer, and performer and finding his own voice along the way.

-- J. Poet

**1/2 Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris WESTERN WALL: THE TUCSON SESSIONS (Asylum)

There's a yin-and-yang spirit at work when Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris collaborate. The pop superstar is a stylistic chameleon who formalizes every note she sings. The country-rock chanteuse appreciates a more colloquial vibe; even her most explicitly produced discs can't hide those DC folk roots.

Western Wall is an explicitly produced disc that zigs toward the casual and zags through stuffiness, trying to make sense of this relationship. With Glyn Johns behind the boards, the pair come up with 13 glistening tracks of various weight and worth. In the end, vocal calibration determines value. When Ronstadt wails over a bedrock of guitars on Patty Griffin's "Falling Down," she sells us a big-voweled mantra. When she bellows Jackson Browne's dead-girl lyrics on "For a Dancer," there ain't a clue in site.

Harris fares better. Those David Olney story songs she's fond of allow for nuanced drama -- "1917" is a nice break from her signature twangsicles. And "All I Left Behind" supports its weepy tone with the evocative whisper she's perfected. Ultimately, the record's about harmony: the accord they achieve on both "Sisters of Mercy" and Roseanne Cash's shimmering title cut illustrate why the pair's coalition is manna to their devotees.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Filter TITLE OF RECORD (Reprise)

One of the more openly bitter refugees from Lollapalooza-era Nine Inch Nails, singer/guitarist Richard Patrick got his revenge by turning Trent's techno-industrial complexity into a simpler if still electronically tweaked kind of heavy metal and scoring a huge hit with "Hey Man, Nice Shot," a song that helped spearhead the hard-rock resurgence of the late '90s. And if his success had some people calling Filter the Stone Temple Pilots of industrial, well, that only helped fuel the me-against-the-world bitterness that so inspires Patrick. But he wasn't really alone: he had a valuable ally in Filter's other half, programmer Brian Liesgang, the guy who put the downward spiral in Patrick's stairway to hell.

Unfortunately, when it came time to record a second album, Patrick's inner angry child managed to alienate Liesgang, and Title of Record suffers for his absence. It's still a commercially viable release, with more than enough turgid riffage, angst-ridden lyrics (i.e., "You think you're precious and I think you're shit" and "I am a guilty man/I can't believe the things I've done to you"), and pounding drums to pass the Ozzfest test and still get invited to the next Family Values reunion. But the occasional electronic touches -- the techno beats and squiggles of "It's Gonna Kill Me," for example -- sound like an afterthought. In other words, it's less techno and more metal, right down to a couple of embarrassing by-the-numbers acoustic ballads. Which should please critics even less than Short Bus and sustain Patrick's paranoia through at least another spin cycle.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Darrell Nulisch THE WHOLE TRUTH (Severn)

The whole truth is that Darrell Nulisch is one hell of a soul singer -- the kind of guy who can twist a note into a teardrop. His latest solo album brims with his own classic-sounding arrangements -- colored by driving horns, stinging guitars, and bar-room organ and piano. Nulisch's early years on the scene in his native Texas have made him a natural for slow-burners like "Telephone Blues," where you can still hear the plains dust in his voice, a dust unaltered by his recent years in Boston. He slowly swings his way though the verses of "There's a Sad Story Here" even while moaning about his broken-hearted misery. And his gospel-dipped delivery of the opener, "Leaving on the Morning Train," is a sermon on the shout 'n' cry joys of soul music.

Nulisch backs up his vocal prowess with a command of the harp that lets him step to the fore of the instrumentals "At-Cha-Mama-Nims" and "Lyla Tov (Good Night)." That's a skill he hasn't been able to display on stage much in recent years, since he's done most of his touring as vocalist for harmonica master James Cotton. Now, he's once again ready to step out on his own.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** BICYCLE (Capricorn)

Beck comparisons fly fast and furious when one considers the boxy breakbeats, raggedy acoustic guitars, beatnik-savant lyrics, and AM radio-filtered vocals of Bicycle's homonymous debut. And the sonic similarities are matched by two other noteworthy parallels: Bicycle is mainly the work of one guy, Kurt Liebert (the backing band listed on the disc were hired after it was recorded); and one-time Beck sideman and President of the USA Chris Ballew produced and played on several cuts.

But that's too superficial a reading of an album that covers a lot of musical terrain -- from an ode to thirst-quenching beverages ("68") that owes buckets to They Might Be Giants' "Ana Ng," to the Guided by Voices lo-fi pop perfection of "That Cat," to the cryptic "All of Her Chords," where Liebert hones his hooks with ease enough to pass for a Posie. Liebert's a Beatle breakbeatist, juggling "Baby, You're a Rich Man"-style harmonies while standing on a rolling barrel of drum machine and turntable moves. The disc's closing number, "Earthquake," suggests the lovely melancholy of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. At 33, Liebert's also a Gen Xer through and through: an irreverent, deeply ironic culture blender whose songs are littered with references to Quarterflash, Zeppelin, and Geraldo. But he's no slacker: he earned the name Bicycle (and went through more than a dozen bandmembers in the process) by logging thousands of miles touring the country on bike, eliciting coverage from CNN and People well before landing a deal with Capricorn.

-- James Rotondi

*** Alison Krauss FORGET ABOUT IT (Rounder)

Alison Krauss's angelic voice has made her an absolute superstar of bluegrass, a platinum seller who years ago crossed gracefully onto pop charts on the strength of her magnificent vocals and gentle arrangements. She has remained true to the homespun values of acoustic music while putting forward songs suited perfectly for lite pop radio, straddling two worlds nearly since she was first signed to a recording contract -- on the strength of her contest-winning fiddle playing -- at age 14.

Fourteen years later, Krauss's eighth Rounder release again paints delicate pictures of longing and other soft emotions, especially on a retake of Shenandoah's 1994 number "Ghost in This House" and the set-ending lullaby of heartbreak "Dreaming My Dreams with You." Sometimes Krauss veers close to saccharine sweet, as on a cover of Todd Rundgren's "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," part of her ongoing exploration of '70s rock material. But musical muscle -- dobro master Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Sam Bush, and finely crafted, often drumless ensemble work -- underscores the deeper integrity of her music.

-- Bill Kisliuk

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