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The Dixie Hummingbirds
Music in the Air
(House of Blues)

This disc is being billed as an "all star tribute" to the Dixie Hummingbirds. There's no doubt that the Hummingbirds -- inarguably the most influential gospel group of this century -- deserve a tribute. It's just that this album doesn't quite do them justice. Most of the songs here are delivered by the Hummingbirds in straight Hummingbird fashion: heavy on the harmonies, horns, and thumping backbeats. While this formula does pay dividends on more lively cuts, such as the bluesy "Slow Moving Train," by track 7 (of 14) it all kind of blends together into one righteous mush.

The welcome exceptions are those tracks on which the Hummingbirds have actually allowed their collaborators a hand in the production. Thus Paul Simon's pop chestnut "Loves Me Like a Rock" takes on a religious luminescence, magnified by the powerful solos of Ira Tucker, Sr. and Stevie Wonder. Wonder's own "Have a Talk With God" is a rousing return to his gospel roots. The funk groove he sets down here calls to mind the masterful work he did on Songs in the Key of Life, and his always supple tenor hasn't sounded so joyous in years. Bobby Womack adds some much-needed R&B zest to the proceedings with his gritty work on "Everything Is Alright."

But elsewhere the star turns seem more forced than forceful. Wynonna Judd's vocal preening makes for a tiring rendition of "How Great Thou Art," and Mavis Staples adds little but histrionics to "I Need Thee."

There is no doubt that any number of contemporary artists owe a debt to the Dixie Hummingbirds. Prince, for instance. Or Aretha Franklin. Or Van Morrison. It's only a pity the folks behind this pleasing but uneven tribute didn't recruit more of them. -- Steve Almond

East River Pipe
The Gasoline Age

On an indie-rock landscape governed by word-drunk babblers, F.M. Cornog is a creator of glistening little pop gems that actually mean something. A lone artist who records as East River Pipe, Cornog has spent most of the last decade writing with insight, honesty, and passion about everything from hard times and hard drinking to emotional salvation and psychological turmoil, forsaking obscurantist gibberish for modestly artful autobiography. Over the course of three albums and a slew of singles, Cornog has proven to be one of the rock 'n' roll underground's finest songwriters.

With The Gasoline Age, East River Pipe's fourth album, Cornog offers another breathtaking travelogue of his obsessions, observations, temptations, and fears, accompanied by his most lavish, lovely soundtracks to date. The disc is a gorgeous, hi-fi compendium of guitars both lush and loud, dollops of piano, canned drums that sound for all the world like the real thing, and Cornog's reedy, evocative voice. A recovering alcoholic and onetime resident of a Queens bus station, Cornog writes from the bottom of life's barrel ("Hell Is an Open Door"); draws from his past for "Party Drive," a wry celebration of teenage blottodom; and toasts his deliverance on "My Little Rainbow" and the beautiful "Down 42nd Street to the Light."

It's the epic "Atlantic City (Gonna Make a Million Tonight)," however, that best defines Cornog's hunger for survival and his refusal to yield to life's bullshit. Like Bruce Springsteen's character in his song of the same title, Cornog's has been kicked around both figuratively and literally ("my daddy beat me every day so mercilessly"), and he's turning to the Jersey gambling mecca for a shot at something better. "Gonna make a million tonight," he croons repeatedly, making himself believe that "this is my lucky day." It probably isn't, but as the song slowly fades, you can't help but believe him. No doubt the guy deserves a break. -- John Floyd

Wilson Pickett
It's Harder Now
(Bullseye Blues & Jazz/Rounder)

It's been 37 years since Wicked Wilson Pickett recorded his first hit (the Falcons' 1962 chestnut "I Found a Love") and more than a dozen since he swore off studio recordings. In that time his terrain -- classic soul -- has been run off the charts by hip-hop rhythms and studio remixing. It's Harder Now isn't likely to re-ignite a passion for the horn-heavy Muscle Shoals sound that Pickett pioneered. But the record is a deft, pleasing piece of work, a throwback that, in its finest moments, wrenches the heart in the way only soul can.

"Outskirts of Town" begins as a tasty slice of pop, with joyous organ fills carrying the melody, and gradually builds to a more frenzied affair, with Pickett howling for redemption. "Taxi Love" showcases the scorching squalls of Mason Casey's harmonica, while "Better Him Than Me" relies on the energetic blaring of saxophonist Crispin Ciao and trumpeter Larry Etkin. The strongest outing here is "Stomp," which clocks in at more than six minutes, allowing Pickett and his muscular troupe the room to improv a little. Not surprisingly "Stomp" was recorded in one take. Elsewhere -- as in the cloying "Soul Survivor" -- one feels the constraints of the studio.

At the age of 58, Pickett's legendary libido shows no sign of slowing. The album's central thematic concern is clear enough from the titles: "What's Under That Dress?" "Bad People," and, of course, "All About Sex." Subtlety has never been Pickett's style. Indeed, in an era overrun by irony and detachment (did someone say Beck?), Pickett's brand of emotionally blatant soul can sound downright dated. Even the most inspiring new work here couldn't be called fresh. But it is satisfying to hear Pickett still pouring his heart into a microphone. Sometimes courage counts for as much as innovation. -- Steve Almond

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
John Floyd