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Robbie Robertson
Contact From the Underworld of Redboy
(Capitol Records)

A haunting Native American song floats over a bed of tribal shakers and atmospheric keyboards. Sweet piano chords add harmonic dimensions to the simple melody. Then an abrupt wall of industrial noise and harsh guitar feedback overwhelms the melody as a distorted voice chants: "The sound is fading.... The sound is fading away...."

Believe it or not, that sound comes from Robbie Robertson's remarkable new album, Contact From the Underworld of Redboy. The former leader of the highly esteemed roots-rock outfit the Band, Robertson is looking at both the future (with electronica-style rhythms) and the past (with the tribal chants and storytelling of his Native American heritage). The result is a proud celebration of a great culture and an evocation of its fading glory.

Robertson picks up where he left off with his groundbreaking soundtrack for the TBS documentary The Native Americans, pulling together Native-American singers and musicians to create lush soundscapes built around eerie song fragments and snippets of ancient melodies and oral histories. But this time electronica asserts its presence. The British electronica wizards Howie B. and Marius DeVries, known for their work with U2 and Massive Attack, respectively, add booming beats that weave through these dense tone poems like lasers cutting through smoke.

The ancient and the modern coexist here: Traditional culture is preserved in a digital, cut-and-paste format, pointing out the similarities between communal rituals and jet-setting club culture. The songs are populated with wild-eyed visionaries intoxicated by ancestral voices that speak through the wind, the rain, the Earth. "We are the people of the long huts/We are the people you tried to break," Robertson croaks on "The Code of Handsome Lake." On "Making a Noise," he whispers threateningly, "You can bet your ass I won't go quietly/Making a noise in this world." One of the most powerful cuts, the disturbing "Sacrifice," features the voice of jailed activist Leonard Peltier. He offers a matter-of-fact recitation of the notorious 1976 shootout between members of the American Indian Movement and the FBI, which resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents and one Indian: "I'm living in a United States penitentiary, which is the swiftest growing Indian reservation in the country," Robertson says.

He hasn't forgotten about the importance of a good hook, however. "Peyote Healing" and "In the Blood" feature gorgeous melodies, and there are a number of catchy dance tracks here. One of the most notable is "Stomp Dance (Unity)," built around a recurring Native American chant provided by the Six Nations Women Singers and intercut with Robertson's heartfelt tale of his return to the Canadian reservation where he spent much of his childhood. "This is Indian country," Robertson sings simply, "This is Indian country." It's both an affirmation and a defiant mantra. Maybe the sound is not fading away; maybe it's just changing with the times.

-- Manuel Pila

Various Artists
Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours

Three constants exist in this world: death, taxes, and the abject baseness of the record industry. Legacy is not merely a tribute to those deathless drivelmeisters Fleetwood Mac, but a track-by-track cover of the band's 1977 kabillion-selling album, as regurgitated by today's pale, pathetic pop stars.

The guilty parties: Tonic (a feckless, note-for-note replication of "Second Hand News"), the Corrs ("Dreams"), matchbox20 (a dependably miserable version of "Never Going Back Again"), the Cranberries ("Go Your Own Way"), Duncan Sheik ("Songbird"), Shawn Colvin ("The Chain," absurdly gussied up with a shuffling hip-hop beat), Jewel ("You Make Loving Fun"), someone named Tallulah (a breathy, get-into-the-bedroom-this-instant "Oh Daddy"), and Sister Hazel (a H.O.R.D.E. Tour-style jam-o-rama on "Gold Dust Woman").

Stalwart geezer Elton John checks in with "Don't Stop," immersing himself in a swirl of clunky keyboard blips and peppy background vocals, while geezers-in-training the Goo Goo Dolls make a desperate bid for attention with "I Don't Want to Know." The CD is absolutely bereft of even one redeeming moment. Well, at least the Wallflowers do not participate.

-- Michael Yockel

James Carter
In Carterian Fashion

At the age of 29 with four albums under his belt, James Carter is one of the biggest names in jazz music, a remarkably versatile tenor saxophonist who has yet to make a misstep. He's not a household name, like that other 29-year-old tenor, Joshua Redman. Carter has kept a low profile, slowly building up his resume and earning widespread critical acclaim. While Redman became a solo star almost overnight, critics seem to prefer Carter because he paid his dues for years as a sideman (for Wynton Marsalis, Lester Bowie, and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra, among others). That's a snobbish attitude, somewhat akin to demanding that modern artists learn their skills in the ateliers of Paris before exhibiting their work. But there's no denying that Carter has learned a lot. He has old-fashioned chops and a firm grip on the conventions of traditional jazz.

Carter likes to flirt with the unconventional, too, and does so once or twice on In Carterian Fashion, his fifth album. But mostly he applies himself to the proven idioms of traditional jazz and be-bop. He's no innovator -- yet -- but he's no imitator, either. True to its name, the new CD bears Carter's personal stamp on every song, be it an original composition or a cover tune.

Carter has previously taken flak for his refusal (or inability) to stick to one tone throughout an album, but this disc offers a fairly balanced mix of familiar jazz styles and offbeat salvos. It opens with "Liammo," written by the multi-instrumentalist Cassius Richmond, who gave Carter his first recording gig. It's a topnotch track, warm and a little luxurious, with Carter's tenor, Richmond's alto, and Dwight Adams' trumpet sauntering in step, but each down its own melodic path. The song is a far cry from the Dixieland stylings of "Don's Idea," an old Don Byas tune, and it's even further removed from Carter's "Skull Grabbin'," which juxtaposes Carter's skronky sax against Craig Taborn's self-composed Hammond organ. Bringing Taborn aboard was a smart idea. His organ is what threads these disparate tracks together, whether he's leading the group, trading solos, or just putting a little icing on the cake. While Carter aims his imagination at various targets, Taborn steadies him as he shoots.

The traditionals here, "Down to the River" and "Trouble in the World," are nicely done but not terribly interesting; they're like wheels that are just too old to reinvent. The title track, which closes the album, is also a slight letdown, veering briefly into generic fusion with Kevin Carter's so-so electric guitar. But they're easily forgotten among finger-snapping tunes such as the buoyant "Escape From Bizarro World" and the whimsically avant-garde "Frisco Follies," a Carter original that's full of surprises. Overall, this is not an album to be overlooked. At this rate Carter will be a household name yet.

-- Rafer Guzman

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Rafer Guzman
Manuel Pila
Michael Yockel

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