Sound Bites

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

EMMYLOU HARRIS "All I Intended to Be" ★★★

Emmylou Harris reinvented herself with 1995's "Wrecking Ball," moving to something more atmospheric and haunting than the traditional country genres she had explored for the previous 25 years. "All I Intended to Be" reunites Harris with Brian Ahern, the producer of many of her early albums, and features appearances from some of her old friends: Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, members of bluegrass' Seldom Scene.

It's not exactly a return to her roots - it's too somber and stately - but it nods in that direction with an emphasis on acoustic guitar, mandolin and steel.

Harris' voice is, of course, impeccable on these 13 songs, five of which she wrote or cowrote (the two with Kate and Anna McGarrigle are highlights). From Tracy Chapman's "All That You Have Is Your Soul" to Merle Haggard's "Kern River," these are uniformly elegant ballads.

JEWEL "Perfectly Clear" ★

Country music is the last refuge of singing scoundrels. Folk career hit a dead end, Jewel? Drift on down to Nashville, where the pickings are easy.

But even the most indiscriminate country fan isn't going to go for this piffle. Jewel still has that annoying quavery voice. Pouring on her thickest hickory-smoked accent on "Love is a Garden" only makes it sound more artificial.

She does a fair Emmylou Harris imitation on "Loved By You," but the closest she comes to country is the Charlie Rich feel of "Anyone But You." And you can thank the song's cowriter Wynn Varble for that.

Producer John Rich heaps on all the requisite instrumental ingredients: banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle, dulcimer and honky-tonk piano. But that still don't make it country.

DR. JOHN AND THE LOWER 911 "City That Care Forgot" ★★★★

As one of New Orleans' leading musical ambassadors, Dr. John has always embodied both the mystical and the merry aspects of the Big Easy spirit.

Now the aging Night Tripper is revealing another side - he is incensed about the state of his beloved city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he pours it all out in the impassioned, politically charged music that makes up one of his best albums.

Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) looks all around the still-hurting city and sees greed and neglect, conspiracy and even murder. "You know me, I can't let that slide," he declares on "Dream Warrior."

With his crack three-man band augmented by horns and strings and such guests as Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Terence Blanchard, the good Doctor wisely couches his anger and contempt, as well as his empathy and sorrow, in the kind of irresistibly funky R&B that has made his city such an indelible cultural landmark.

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