Record Roundup

The Roots

Illadelph Halflife

DGC

          ILLADELPH HALFLIFE IS both a strong hip hop record and a bit of a letdown, a consequence of it following the group's creatively thrilling, commercially moribund Do You Want More?!!!??!! CD from last year. On that masterful outing, The Roots were a posse of MCs and musicians quickened by instinctual genius, exhaling hard raps and spacey riffs with unflinching alacrity, while fashioning an entirely new blend of quirky moods and jazzy, breakneck momentum.

          But it crashed and burned in the marketplace, forcing the group to more carefully define their sound this time around. Where the tracks on Do You Want seemed to unfurl like an open-ended suite, the first half-dozen numbers on Halflife establish a Roots signature of quicksilver raps (mostly from frontmen Black Thought and Malik B.) pushing through a shimmer of keyboards and samples. Usually it sounds great--like Naughty By Nature on the woozy tip--but without much variation. The absence of saxophonist Steve Coleman is felt; the only horns that really bust through the mix include the loose David Murray jam on "Dave vs. US," and "One Shine," which sounds like a mediocre outtake from Do You Want More. In addition to Murray, guest stars abound and generally acquit themselves well, particularly the female rapper Bahamadia on "Push Up Your Lighter" and Q-Tip on "Ital (The Universal Side)." And as with Do You Want, the most riveting track on Halflife is a topical, emotionally-charged rap by the poet Ursula Rucker, this time on the downward spiral of participating in the crack trade. Somebody get this woman a record contract. (Britt Robson)

The Louvin Brothers

Tragic Songs of Life

Satan Is Real

Capitol Nashville

          WELL IT'S ABOUT time. Out of print in the U.S. for decades as far as I can tell, these records were available on vinyl for a while in the '80s as imports on the British Stetson imprint, until a variety of woes (foremost a lawsuit from the hat company involving copyright infringement) drove that label under. The only other option has been the voluminous and costly Louvin Brothers CD box marketed by Germany's Bear Family label--a comprehensive set that, I have on good authority, was the first-ever CD purchase of one-time Jayhawk Mark Olson.

          Why should any of this concern you? Well, the historical line is that the Charlie and Ira Louvin were the greatest country harmony group ever. As a profound influence on the Everly Brothers, their haunting/haunted sound echoes down the annals of rock & roll through the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and up to modern alt-country groups like the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo (who once covered their "Great Atomic Power"). But history aside, these '50s recording carry an emotional potency that remains undiminished today.

          Partly it's the songs. Tragic Songs of Life, the duo's first LP for Capitol, more than lives up to its name. Their version of the multi-faceted "In the Pines" is not the ragingly jealous version Leadbelly (and Nirvana) made popular as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"--instead, it's a high and lonesome lament for a girl who left (in betrayal?) on a long, long train. "Knoxville Girl," on the other hand, is the most disturbing of the record's numerous songs of female infidelity. It begins with a man beating an unfaithful woman to death with a stick, dragging her by her hair, dumping her body in the river, and going home to have nightmares of black flames engulfing his bed. Though the duo was reluctant to release it as a single, they eventually did, and--surprise--it became the record's biggest hit.

          Satan Is Real is the most famous of the brothers' gospel sets, and it has its own striking tunes--notably the much-covered "The River of Jordan" and "The Christian Life," which both Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons goofed on memorably for the Byrd's Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (the unreleased Parsons version eventually surfaced on the Byrds retrospective box set). But what elevates all these songs to the level of high art is the close harmony singing of Ira and Charlie, burning with earthly passion, guilt, and that lust for something greater. Whether they realized it or not, in these remarkable recordings, they achieved the object of the latter. (Will Hermes)

Jesse Johnson

Bare My Naked Soul

Delta

          There are worse things for an artist to do than try too hard. During the mid-'80s, Jesse Johnson established himself as one of the sharpest guitarists around with The Time, adding a turbo-charged fifth gear to the group in a manner very similar to what Prince was doing in his own band. Then Johnson fell into disrepair, making tawdry headlines with drunken, bizarre behavior and engaging in a public dispute with his former mate over financial matters. All of this is alluded to in the artwork for the cover of Bare My Naked Soul, a CD that, as its title implies, spares no effort in trying to recoup all of the career ground Johnson lost in his fall from grace. The result is a very ambitious display of talent that can't help but be less than the sum of its considerable parts.

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