Short Cuts

John Prine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Various Artists

John Prine
In Spite of Ourselves
(Oh Boy Records)

Nobody every bought a John Prine album for the beauty of his voice. The Illinois native has the vocal range of a bass drum and the subtlety of Kentucky moonshine. Prine's genius -- displayed erratically over almost 30 years and nearly 20 albums' worth of wholly novel songwriting -- has always been his ability to blend the sublime and the goofy to illuminating effect. So it seems strange for Prine to offer as his first studio effort in four years an album of cover songs.

On In Spite of Ourselves, he has chosen to focus on classic country duets about love, heartbreak, swingin', and, most of all, cheatin'. Prine compensates for his own shortcomings by surrounding himself with enough female vocal firepower to blow up a beer joint. Lucinda Williams helps turn Claude Boone's "Wedding Bells" and Hank Williams' "Let's Turn Back the Years" into a gut-wrenching medley that spans a lifetime of heartbreak. Kieran Kane's "In a Town This Size" features Dolores Keane and Prine commiserating over the ceaseless gaze of small-town living. ("If you smoke a cigarette/They'll be talkin' about your breath.") Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris are among the other country divas who make cameos.

The most affecting tracks, however, are the duets Prine performs with dames whose voices are as off-kilter as his own. Melba Montgomery contributes her astounding warble on two tunes, most notably "Milwaukee Here I Come," a hilarious anti-love song written by Lee Fikes. Other chestnuts come courtesy of Prine and Iris DeMent, whose endearingly awkward Appalachian croon graces four songs. No slight on Yearwood, but let's hear her belt out a line like "He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays/I caught him once sniffin' my undies," as DeMent does on the one Prine original, "In Spite of Ourselves," a bawdy tale of hapless love that blends right in with the rest of the album.

The musical arrangements reflect a simple elegance that fits the material: Percussion is muted in favor of heavy doses of fingerpicking. Dan Dugmore and Buddy Emmons contribute tear-inducing pedal steel, while Kieran Kane's tremulous mandolin work drives home the heartbreak on a couple numbers. Let's hope Prine isn't done penning his quirky songs, but in the meantime In Spite of Ourselves is a tobacco-juice-polished gem of a tribute to classic country. -- Paul Demko


G. Love & Special Sauce
Philadelphonic
(Okeh/550 Music)

I should be sick of G. Love & Special Sauce by now. That's the way I feel, anyway. When the band's self-titled debut came out, in 1994, the whole Philly-white-boy-does-Delta-blues-as-hip-hop seemed fresh and ineluctable. I didn't especially care that G. Love himself mumbled hopelessly -- fact is, that was part of his charm -- because the whole loose-jointed sound kicked.

But here we are, three albums on, and I'm still taken with the trio. And I guess it's because, in their own way, G. Love and his henchmen (Jimi "Jazz" Prescott on string bass, Jeffrey Clemens on drums) keep evolving. Philadelphonic carries on the vibe pursued by 1997's Yeah, It's That Easy: easy listening blues-hop with enough instrumental innovation to transcend mere piffle.

"Rodeo Clowns," the first single from Philadelphonic, is driven along by an instantly hummable guitar riff and the crisp clatter of Clemens' backbeat. But you'll hear enough of that track on the radio. The treasures here, however, are buried a bit deeper. The tranquilized charm of "Relax," for instance, sports tinkling lullaby stylings, and the daffy pleasures of "Dreamin'" build toward a folksy outro that sounds more like the Grateful Dead than DMX. "Numbers" is G. Love's paean to goodwill among men, and while his musings are hardly the stuff of Nobel Peace Prizes ("Eleven white swans swimming in a black lake/Told me keep it real and you'll find who's fake"), the syncopated guitar riff that backs him is somehow both catchy and plaintive. The finest gems are "Kick Drum," an alluring slice of gospel driven along by Prince-inspired falsetto harmonies and gentle harmonica flourishes, and "Honor and Harmony," with its relaxed reggae tempo and Motownish group chorus.

G. Love's essential problem remains his unwillingness to indulge in the full possibilities of his melodies, and this makes the lesser tracks here ("Do It For Free" and "Gimme Some Lovin'") blend together in the manner of an overcooked risotto. But hey, the kid is still cooking. And the Special Sauce is still tasty enough to spice the entrées' occasional lapses. -- Steve Almond


Various Artists
Whole Lotta Blues: Songs of Led Zeppelin
(House of Blues Music Company)

Led Zeppelin's whole shtick resided in its ability to puff standard 12-bar blues ditties into frothy arena-rock meshugaas. The question this fine new compilation poses is this: What happens if you remove the bombast from the Zep? Answer: You're left with a surprisingly tasty batch of blues. The finest moments on Whole Lotta Blues -- by far the strongest release in a seemingly endless procession of tribute discs released by House of Blues -- are those that strip the Page-Plant combine to the bone.

Guitar prodigy Eric Gales turns in a lovely syncopated turn on "Custard Pie." Magic Slim's acoustic version of "When the Levee Breaks" spotlights the nasty harp work of Billy Branch and the venerable James Cotton. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's cover of "Rock N' Roll" is awash in Memphis horns and soulful keyboards, and Chris Thomas King gives "Hey Hey (What Can I Do)" a pleasingly pop treatment.

The unrivaled highlight here is Robert Lockwood, Jr.'s revelatory rendition of "Bring It on Home." In one sitting the 84-year-old native of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, does more to infuse longing into this classic-rock chestnut than wiggly old Robert Plant ever did. Amen. -- Steve Almond

 
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