Short Cuts

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Walking Into Clarksdale
(Atlantic)

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have produced some of the best rock albums of all time. Walking Into Clarksdale isn't one of them. Twenty years ago, during the heyday of Led Zeppelin, Page was a lot slimmer, and Plant had a high-pitched, unpredictable edge that you wouldn't want him even to attempt today. Still, Clarksdale, the first collection of all-new material by Page and Plant since 1979, is a success. It may lack the lightning of the glory days, but it has some of the old thunder.

Page can still make a Les Paul shimmer, and Plant, who may have lost an octave (or two), still has one of the thickest, gnarliest voices in rock. Clarksdale is laden with large doses of crisp, disconnected guitar riffs and Plant's sultry crooning. In typical Zep fashion, the songs shift moods on a dime. Page goes from melodious acoustic strumming to hard electric hammering, and Plant follows suit, alternating between tender dalliances and bold declarations.

Clarksdale opens with "Shining in the Light," built on the classic Led Zeppelin model: an acoustic-guitar shuffle, tight chord changes, flowing strings, and a catchy chorus carried by Plant's voice. "When the World Was Young" is decidedly Eastern-influenced, while "Blue Train" is a mellow, six-minute-plus jam built around a simple drum rhythm and bass groove. Pretty, bluesy, single-note guitar work by Page abounds, and, again the lustrous chorus is shouldered by the unique tone of Plant's voice.

Among these tracks are some dynamic rockers, including "When I Was a Child," in which Page's trademark vibrato guitar enhances the pensive lyrics: "Once I was a soldier/In my castle strong/Oh, I stood so tall then/I could do no wrong/Innocence and slumber/When I was a boy." It may not be poetry, but Led Zeppelin always had a knack for making its overblown imagery sound impressive. The lyrics even attempt wit: On the wistful "Please Read the Letter," Plant laments, "There's nothing here that's left for you/But check with Lost and Found."

Touring to support the album, Page and Plant will perform at the Miami Arena Friday, May 22. They'll probably serve up a plateful of oldies, but this material ain't chopped liver, either. Clarksdale is a laudable effort. There isn't even a gimme cover-song among the twelve tracks to indicate that Page and Plant gave anything less than 100 percent. OK, the song doesn't exactly remain the same. But why should it?

-- Jonathan Lesser

Dock Boggs
Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (19271929)
(Revenant)

Recorded more than 70 years ago and originally pressed into pancake-thick records that were spun on hand-cranked Victrolas, the songs of Dock Boggs have survived the ravages of time with uncommon relevance. A precursor to artists such as Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, and even Nick Cave, Boggs sang tunes that resonate at strange and disturbing frequencies. Country Blues features a dozen gems from the '20s, elaborately packaged with a 64-page hardcover book. The disc tells Boggs' story better than any release to date.

A part-time coal miner and full-time whiskey bootlegger, Boggs lived a violent, turbulent life in the mountains along the Virginia-Kentucky border. As fast with a gun as with a banjo, Boggs was the musical alter ego of the angelic Carter Family, Appalachia's much-loved country music group. While the Carters were steeped in religious faith and a tightly knit community, Boggs saw an indifferent god who reigned over hell on Earth.

With a voice like loose change rattling in a Mason jar, Boggs sang of the poverty and starkness of the pre-Depression South. Songs such as "Danville Girl" and "New Prisoner's Song" are devoid of emotion and awash in moral ambiguity. Boggs sounds both untrustworthy and frighteningly detached from his surroundings.

If Boggs had a good side, you would have wanted to be on it. His murder ballads, such as "Pretty Polly" and "Hard Luck Blues," hinge on sudden violence that chills the spine and cuts to the marrow. Boggs' ashes-to-ashes delivery gives the mayhem of these narratives a dust-to-dust delivery that takes on a distinctly sinister edge. No doubt Boggs' compelling performances will continue to resonate for at least another 70 years.

-- John Lewis

Love Nut
Baltimucho
(Big Deal)

Love Nut's second release, Baltimucho, makes the band sound like musical Luddites compared to the waves of ambient, electronica, synthesizer-worshiping, overproduced, and DJ-spawned music filling the shelves lately. In the tradition of the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, this four-piece band from Baltimore ("Baltimucho" is local slang for the city) cranks out punchy melodies propped up by a solid guitar-and-backbeat foundation. The result is an album of fifteen catchy songs that barge in without knocking and leave well before they wear out their welcome.

None of the songs delves into weighty issues, but that's not what guitar rock is for. Instead, Love Nut sticks to the tried-and-true territories of love, longing, and loss. Andy Bopp, on lead vocals, manages to deliver the corniest lines ("She doesn't even know she's gonna bring me down," from "Foolish Game") without sounding saccharine or trite. "Love Found You" is the kind of stick-in-your-head melody that Squeeze used to do so well. "Falling Down" boasts an edgy guitar riff and some razor-sharp lyrics ("Who am I to pontificate?/The words are all too big for you"). Even the band's ballads ("Foolish Game" and "Message") have a certain bite to them, thanks in large part to the crisp, energetic production of Ed Stasium, who's worked with the Ramones, the Smithereens, and Talking Heads.

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