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DECEMBER 8, 1997: 

*** The Hackberry Ramblers


(Hot Biscuits)

These old coots in boots have been at it longer than Jesus. Come to think of it, He had only 33 years to make it in the music business. The Ramblers have been plying their brand of Cajun country music since 1933, at dances and parties in southwestern Louisiana -- and even recording for Bluebird. Singers Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore join them here -- Gilmore's Jimmie Rodgers warble on "Deep Water" is especially apt -- to help sell the CD, but what's hippest is the Ramblers' vintage hot-footed melodies. They're played (usually on guitar, fiddle, or accordion) with the slow-paced intensity and love of detail that was the hallmark of great pre-rock-era country soloists. And the Ramblers perform Cajun classics, traditional folk numbers, country swing, and "Proud Mary" with the pride and dignity of the wizened old oak that produced all the acorns that sprouted the forest at its feet.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Sonny Simmons


(Qwest/Warner Bros.)

Veteran alto player Sonny Simmons is one of the most ferocious saxmen around, and his latest is a primal workout of passionate intensity, with solid accompaniment from pianist Travis Shook, drummer Cindy Blackman, and the venerable Reggie Workman on bass. Simmons has had his ups and downs since debuting in the late '50s with Prince Lasha, including a brief tenure on the streets of San Francisco during the lean years of the mid '80s. But his music -- doubtless informed by his down-and-out experiences -- is tough and street-worthy.

On American Jungle he rarely falls off his testifying high horse. "American Jungle Theme," with its Latin traces and wildly hard-bopping style, recalls the heyday of the Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter. Elsewhere Simmons evokes the same "standing on a mountaintop" feel of mid-'60s Coltrane. There are two homages to the Master here: an original called "Coltrane Story" (which has a "Bessie's Blues" feel) and a version of "My Favorite Things" that stays true to Trane's arrangement while showcasing Simmons's slightly more agitated yowl.

-- Joe S. Harrington



(Le Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi import)

These songs will sound familiar to folkies who love the Weavers, jazz fans loyal to Charlie Haden, and punksters crazy about the Ex. It is mindboggling to think that songs from the Spanish Civil War, a conflict more than a half a century old, would inspire such diverse sensibilities. Yet, here are 14 original anti-Fascist tunes remastered from old 78s, sequenced to tell of a heroic fight where right almost overcame might. Some of the performers sound classically trained, others unschooled. The lyrics are stirring, the singing is fervent, the orchestral backing is apt, and the melodies (Basque as well as Spanish classical and folk hybrids) are all memorable.

-- Norman Weinstein

*** Renée Rosnes


(Blue Note)

For her fifth album as a leader, pianist Rosnes has assembled a quartet with Chris Potter on tenor and soprano sax, Christian McBride on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Rosnes's playing, with its muscular impressionism and subtle lyricism, is reminiscent of Maiden Voyage-era Herbie Hancock but with a more sophisticated emotional undercurrent -- whereas Herbie, as it turned out, was just going through a phase, Rosnes has a long-haul commitment to this intricate, ruminative approach, and on trio cuts like "Abstraction Blue" and Tony Williams's "Pee Wee" she achieves a complex and unresolved mood of elated disenchantment that seems to sum up the heart of jazz's revived mainstream.

Potter has a knotty, journeyman style that comes across, on his brief features here anyway, as too generic to impress, but the rhythm section holds the interest with its busy elasticity, DeJohnette's brushwork on Walt Weiskopf's "Non-Fiction" being a model of aggressive support. A solid date, then, offering the always welcome pleasure of hearing an accomplished improviser at the peak of her powers.

-- Richard C. Walls

*** Prince Paul


(Tommy Boy)

This tuneful and twisted "collection of skitstyle material" may be a nonsensical lark, but it also offers an instructive tale from the hip-hop fringe. Prince Paul initially entered the spotlight in the late '80s as the brilliant young producer behind De La Soul and other beatific "daisy agers," but as rap became harder in the '90s, Paul migrated with the herd, giving greater vent to his personal taste for grade-B horror flicks with groups like the Gravediggaz.

Eventually his obsessions led him so far out, the only move left was "back to the underground!" In 1996 the tiny WordSound label released this pastiche of outrageous sex raps and demented spoken-word snippets, matched to everything from vintage old-school beats to cool trance grooves. And then, just the way it happened the first time, the local commotion caused by his creative efforts aroused the interest of a major label, and hence this re-release with "three brand new tracks," plus a new remix by Dr. Octagon's Dan the Automator. Like left-field albums by everyone from DJ Shadow to Missy Elliot, it proves that the hip-hop underground is as brash, fecund, and totally unpredictable as ever. The majors can work with that, or they can move over.

-- Franklin Soults

*** Moby



Moby is techno's sensible son, from the pragmatic decision to limit his political discourses to the liner notes of his albums on up to his practical, no-fuss haircut. More recently, he's divided his time between wooing a mainstream audience with the guitar-bass-and-drums-oriented rock of Animal Rights (Elektra) and practicing his art as a techno studio wiz in remixes and soundtracks.

I Like To Score, which does offer another one of Moby's written mini-manifestos (this one deals with capitalism's moral crisis), is basically his way of saying that if it looks, sounds, and feels like soundtrack music, well, then, might as well treat it as soundtrack music -- i.e., use it in films. And like so much contemporary electronica, Moby's sleek instrumental techno tracks are ideally suited for such a task (which is more than just a nice way of saying they don't necessarily hold up on their own). His tendency to dabble in various genres -- a benign symptom of obsessive sampling -- serves him well in the celluloid world: he does everything from ambient synth washes ("Novio," from Double Tap) and symphonic piano etudes ("God Moving over the Face of the Waters," from Heat), to high-energy house grooves ("Go," from Twin Peaks) and melancholy ballads ("Love Theme," from Joe's Apartment). And, sensible boy that he is, there's just enough rockist guitar here -- in the technofied "James Bond Theme" and his radical remix of Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades" -- to appeal to modern rockers.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Kate and Anna McGarrigle



Sure, the McGarrigles have earned bigger royalties from Linda Ronstadt's precious covers of their bittersweet tunes (like "I Cried for You" here, which Linda called "I've Had Enough"). But the low-key delivery this Irish/French-Canadian duo give their own tunes, along with the entwined harmonies, comes across as more sincere. Recorded over three years, this reissued 1983 disc is inevitably less cohesive than 1996's stunning Matapedia. The CD's quirky techno-pop opening is a bit strange, yet as an eccentricity it works better than the rock attempt of "Move Over Moon." Of course, the McGarrigles are best when they stick to 19th-century parlor music, accordion-backed French-Canadian chansons, and folk and pop. Still, after only seven McGarrigle albums in 20 years, it's good to have this one back in print.

-- Bruce Sylvester

**** Joi Cardwell



Cardwell, with the rawest soprano among house music's favorite soul divas, here gets an entire CD in which to unleash her drama. The music -- lean and lush, jazzy and in dub -- answers back with some pretty heavy drama of its own, in many shapes. From the hard house ("Soul To Bare," "Crying Eyes") to sweet garage ("Found Love"), tribal ("Turn Back Time"), and dark sleaze ("What Does IT Mean?"), Cardwell moves in close and closer, so intimately that in "Wet" you can almost taste her breathing -- and her sweat. For years now Cardwell's sweet-tongued honey contralto has been the favorite voice for top-line DJs from Junior Vasquez to Danny Tenaglia; this Best Diva CD of the Year shows why.

-- Michael Freedberg

The Saints

**1/2 (I'M) STRANDED


(Triple X)

Here's a reminder of how fast things happened during the punk explosion of '77: deluxe reissues (cleaner sound, bonus tracks, new liner notes) of the first two albums by the Saints, an Australian quartet who will be releasing a new disc on Triple X next year. The first Saints album has to be the second-crudest album in punk history, after the Ramones' debut. Not only couldn't the Australian quartet play very well, but their writers couldn't write and the producer couldn't produce. So (I'm) Stranded comes off as a three-chord tantrum in the best suburban-brat tradition. "Erotic Neurotic" is the best track because it's the dumbest; it starts as a blatant steal of the Beatles' "I Wanna Be Your Man" before singer Chris Bailey forgets the words and spends the last verse counting to five.

Flash-forward just six months and the same band turn in a minor classic with Eternally Yours. Suddenly the Saints have polish, great hooks, and even some soul. The opening "Know Your Product" sports the same horn-driven Memphis sound that the Clash would toy with two years later on London Calling. Here the Saints were even grown-up enough to deflate punk fashion ("International Robots"), put across a love song (the 12-string jangly "Untitled"), and write their big youth anthem ("This Perfect Day," one of the great lost punk singles). Bailey hadn't lost his brattiness yet: he still shouts "Come on!" at least twice per song.

-- Brett Milano

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