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Tom Rush
Very Best of Tom Rush: No Regrets

Tom Rush always has been saddled with that most deadly of labels: critics' darling. Translation: popular failure. In a career that spans nearly 40 years, Rush has never achieved the kind of monster success enjoyed by his protégés Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. And yet as No Regrets attests, his stylistic ambitions mark him as the folk equivalent of the Velvet Underground: largely overlooked by the masses, yet hugely influential to the course of popular music. His 1965 album, Take a Little Walk With Me, is a monument in the folk-rock movement, while 1970's The Circle Game is generally regarded as the flagship of the songwriting movement.

The central question in surveying the 17 tracks on this retrospective (selected by Rush himself) is whether they withstand the test of time. The answer is, well, sort of. Some of the material assembled here still bristles with incandescence. A gorgeous, blustery arrangement of the traditional "Galveston Flood" showcases Rush's deft slide guitar work, as well as a lush baritone. "On the Road Again" is a good-time train song propelled by Bobby Gregg's snazzy snare drumming and Al Kooper's plinking guitar licks. "Lost My Drivin' Wheel" is accented by David Bromberg's mournful dobro and has the dark, stripped-down feel of a recent Beck offering. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is "Ladies Love Outlaws," a joyous honky-tonk romp juiced by the Memphis Horns.

Unfortunately not all of Rush's oeuvre holds up so well. A number of the cuts feel sorely dated. A case in point: the oft-covered title track, a pleasing-enough nugget of folk-pop that Rush rendered sodden and sappy with strings. The biggest disappointment is the disc's only new track, "River Song," a limp country offering that wastes backing-vocal turns from Marc Cohn and neofolkie Shawn Colvin. No Regrets isn't likely to fuel an instant Tom Rush revival. But it stands as an accurate and occasionally inspired tribute to his eclectic catalog. -- Steve Almond

Matthew Sweet
In Reverse

No career turnaround in recent memory has been as startling or as satisfying as Matthew Sweet's. His transformation from destitute pop unknown to globally lionized altrock figure hinged on one pivotal release, 1991's acclaimed Girlfriend. Sweet's rock redemption came after two decent pop efforts in the late '80s that went nowhere and got him dropped by two different labels. When he rebounded with the stunning Girlfriend, he encountered an unpredictable turn of events. Although the momentum built slowly, Girlfriend became a staple on radio stations and video channels and eventually appeared on scores of Top 10 lists. Equally impressive were Sweet's four subsequent releases, all of which expanded his burgeoning following.

In Reverse, Sweet's first album of new material in two years, is a decidedly pop though sonically experimental release. As the title suggests, the production leans toward a '60s sound, with Beatles-George Martin tricks and trifles, as well as a few references to the Hollies and the Move. The majestic Sgt. Pepper pop-pomp of opener "Millennium Blues" glides easily into the classic harmonies and hooks of "If Time Permits" and "Beware My Love," where Sweet soundchecks obscure '70s pop rockers Crabby Appleton. The pistol-whipping rocker "Faith in You" is perhaps the most propulsively crunchy three and a half minutes that Sweet has ever produced and is followed by the gorgeous slink of "Hide."

Sweet calls on a number of stalwarts, including Velvet Crush bassist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck, both of whom are joined nearly throughout by percussionist Fred Maher. The trio gives much of In Reverse a rich percussive depth. Veteran session genius Greg Leisz offers a multitude of guitars as well as his signature pedal and lap steel to the mix, while Bruce and Walt Fowler, Frank Zappa alumni, contribute great horn arrangements and performances.

Matthew Sweet has made his potent point with Girlfriend and its follow-ups, so it's great to hear him take a chance and return to his purer pop roots. In Reverse has all the earmarks of being one of the year's best, and Sweet is well on his way to being considered in a league with other contemporary pop geniuses like Brian Wilson, Roy Wood, and Todd Rundgren. -- Brian Baker

George Carlin
The Little David Years 1971-1977
(Little David/Atlantic)

In the mid-'60s there were a lot of funny comics, but only two brilliant comedians: Bill Cosby and George Carlin. Cosby's genius lay in the universal themes of family and community and the recollection of his childhood as it crashed into his reality as a parent. Everything else was George Carlin's territory. Both men relied heavily on observational humor at a time when comedy was more joke-based than anecdotal. It was Carlin, however, whose simple bits became impossibly funny wordplays.

After establishing himself throughout much of the '60s as the comedy establishment's oddball, Carlin's act began to change toward the end of the decade. Vietnam, social unrest, and the hippie culture had a huge impact on Carlin, who had always been a malcontent disguised as a straight. He shunned the mainstream, grew his hair, smoked a lot of pot, and developed a new persona. When he returned, with 1972's seminal comedy masterpiece FM & AM, he was almost unrecognizable to his former audience, but he was too busy attracting a new audience to notice.

Over the next six years, Carlin would forever change the nature of comedy. In addition to FM & AM, he released five more albums on Atlantic Records' Little David imprint. The six albums combined comprise the majority of the fabulous new boxed set The Little David Years.

Carlin's manic gifts are fully displayed in The Little David Years. The appeal of the boxed set, for those who already own all the albums, is simple. It is a gorgeous package, with a lenticular box cover featuring Carlin's classic mugging, an extensive biographical book, and a rarities disc featuring material that never made it onto any of Carlin's releases. While the rarities are not Carlin's strongest stuff, they are historically interesting. Equally fascinating is the opportunity to hear Carlin as he moves subtly from early laid-back stoner to the cocaine-fueled speed demon of his middle and later periods.

But most astonishing are the disc sleeves, little gatefold covers that are perfect re-creations of the original album covers, down to the paper sleeve inserts that housed the vinyl. The covers even bear the distressed look of well-worn albums, with wear rings, broken spines, and bent corners. The only missing detail would be the stray bits of pot on the inside of the gatefold where the listener would have cleaned his stash. That minor omission aside, The Little David Years is every bit as brilliant and as fascinating as its subject and his words. -- Brian Baker

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Brian Baker