Short Cuts

Nanci Griffith
Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful)
(Elektra)

Nanci Griffith has provided yeoman's service to the culture at large with her 15th album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) -- a followup to Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993) -- by tastefully selecting 19 more obscure songs by some of America's best country and folk songwriters. She then climbs down from the attic with another collection of master singers to back her up. The appearances of veterans such as John Prine, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris, and MIAs such as Sonny Curtis and Odetta make for a single CD that runs for 72 minutes and never gets dull.

The first few songs have Griffith singing the lead vocal by herself. Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" fits just right with Griffith's voice, alternating between playfulness and solemnity, backed by an Irish combination of accordion, fiddle, flute, and pennywhistle. But Griffith has her limits. While John Grimaudo and Saylor White's slow, syncopated ballad "Dress of Laces" is lush with piano, a string quartet, and Lyle Lovett's harmony vocals, smoothness transforms into a blunt edge when the girl in the song shoots her mother's boyfriend. Griffith -- with her warmth and her honeyed and humorous voice -- isn't always the right one to tell you that we all have to die someday.

Fortunately other voices take the helm as the album moves along -- weird, low-down-and-dirty voices. Ian Tyson leads off in Tom Russell's "Canadian Whiskey," bringing his weathered tenor baritone to bear appropriately on such cowboy sentiments as "Her eyes were the color of Canadian whiskey/ Pure blended whiskey/So light brown and fine." And probably not a lot of Griffith fans who listen to her version of "He Was a Friend of Mine" would otherwise hear songwriter Dave Van Ronk's strained, muted way of howling everything that comes out of his mouth. A minor highlight in Tom Rush's raucous "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" and Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" is when Odetta emerges from the backup chorus for her solos -- quavering, exotic, insistent.

The last song, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes' "If I Had a Hammer," is a reminder that most of the album's songs either come from or point to the folk revival of the '50s and '60s. The song also indicates that Griffith could be the late-'90s version of the Weavers. Like them she maintains the songs' integrity, even if she does smooth out the ruffles so they'll sound good for polite company.

-- Barry Lank

Jeff Buckley
Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk
(Columbia)

It was Jeff Buckley's angelic tenor voice that distinguished his first studio album, 1994's Grace, and drew attention to his lilting, meditative songs. But he didn't live long enough to complete a second full-length album. When Buckley, the son of '60s troubadour Tim Buckley, drowned on May 29, 1997, at age 30, he left behind tapes scattered from Memphis to New York, filled with completed songs and fragmented musical passages. The tapes became Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk, a posthumous release of Buckley's unfinished work and a glint of his long-awaited second album. More important than being a followup album, it's a reflection of Buckley's uninhibited muse at work.

Under the guidance of Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, and former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk was pieced together primarily from studio demos produced by TV's Tom Verlaine in New York City and Memphis. Also included in the two-CD set are five four-track recordings made by Buckley days before his death.

The breadth of this collection is overwhelming at first listen; loose four-track ideas are followed by immaculately packaged studio cuts, and the songwriting styles vary from Stooges-esque hormonal testaments ("Your Flesh Is So Nice" and "Yard of Blonde Girls") to stark guitar and vocals ("Jewel Box" and "Satisfied Mind").

There are some oddities, too. "Everybody Here Wants You" is a slinky soul tune that, to Buckley's credit, wouldn't sound out of place on a Luther Vandross record. A minimalist rendition of Genesis' "Back in N.Y.C." appears on the second disc, with a gritty guitar loop and hearty screams that could have originated only in the '70s.

Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk harkens back to Grace and, in its quieter moments, Buckley's first EP, Live at Sin-e. Here, too, are mystical and somewhat oblique lyrics that follow themes of love, devotion, and spiritual longing. "The Sky Is a Landfill" has all the dark, rocking spirit of Grace's "Mojo Pin." Although some of the songs in this collection obviously relate to his earlier work, most of the songs reveal new dimensions in Buckley's songwriting.

Dedicated to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the world-renowned singer of Sufi devotional music and a friend of Buckley, Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk demonstrates Buckley's interest in Khan's music on songs such as "New Year's Prayer" and "You & I," in which repetitive dirges are overlaid with Buckley's ghostly voice. In the background, a vocal track warbles as if sung in a religious trance.

Picking up the pieces of Jeff Buckley's musical legacy has been fruitful. Even though Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk isn't exactly the album he would have made, as the liner notes concede, it captures Buckley's larger ambitions and his creative nuances in a way that no followup album could have.

-- Daniel Lovering

Kate Jacobs
Hydrangea
(Bar/None Records)

New Jersey-based Kate Jacobs writes folk and Americana melodies that often lilt and sometimes jangle, and, for her third album, she's chosen her family history as the topic for many of the songs. On Hydrangea the intimate stories based on pictures, letters, and diaries come close to being cloying, but the album ranges broadly in two ways. Thematically several songs explore the way people's choices take them down unexpected -- and sometimes regretful -- paths. Musically two gorgeous, moving choral pieces add weight to the CD. Overall there's a bit too much wistful sweetness and light, but repeated listens reveal more layers than the album first appears to have.

On her catchy folk-pop numbers such as "Shallow" and "A Good Night For Sleeping," Jacobs sounds like Shawn Colvin. The more countrified songs, "Honeybees" and "Good Doctor," could have come from Iris DeMent, although Jacobs' steady-but-soft voice could never be mistaken for DeMent's resounding vocal force. Several cuts resemble lullabies or uncomplicated sing-along tunes; one of these, "Late," is so deliberately gentle -- near-whispered vocals, a softly picked guitar -- it feels as if a light breeze could blow it away.

Jacobs borrows a few lines from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova as the starting points for "Dream On" and "Because I Have Forgiven Everyone," pieces she wrote and arranged but are sung by children's choirs. The former, performed by the Hudson School Chorus, has a haunting guitar solo that would fit in with the dreamy bleakness of Big Star's Third. The latter, performed by the Mustard Seed School Children's Choir, closes the album on a bittersweet note by examining the way disappointment shades, but doesn't erase, love.

For every moment that resonates, though, there are others that feel too easy. For example, "Good Doctor" features the 12-step line "We know love can hurt sometimes/ It's kindness that makes us free," and the chorus of "Hope Is a Weed" ("Baby bird, is that your voice I heard?") feels like kindergarten song hour. Jacobs shows faith in her audience by walking a fine line between "simple" and "deceptively simple"; the rewards of her complexity are plenty, but on Hydrangea the pleasures of simplicity feel forced.

-- Theresa Everline

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