January 1, 2005

North Mississippi Allstars

Hill Country Revue

North Mississippi Allstars

Every great jam band needs a hallmark live album, and now the North Mississippi Allstars have theirs in the form of Hill Country Revue, which was recorded at last year’s Bonnaroo festival. However, there is much more going on here than the Allstars running through their typical set list. Sure, their cornerstone tunes are represented in fine fashion, including Fred McDowell’s “Shake ’Em on Down,” R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South,” and Otha Turner’s “Shimmy She Wobble.” But head Allstar and toneful guitarist Luther Dickinson’s vision to bring generations together and provide recognition to the Hill Country blues’ forefathers is realized in the form of appearances by Turner’s grandchildren, R.L. Burnside himself, and the Dickinson brothers’ renowned father, Jim. The guitar playing is super solid throughout, although the key to Luther’s appeal is not dazzling chops, but rather his authentic feel and passion for the music of his homeland. In that light, Hill Country Review stands as his greatest accomplishment; he transforms Bonnaroo into an authentic evening with the extended family at Burnside’s Blues Café. ATO. —Jimmy Leslie

Fripp & Eno

The Equatorial Stars

Fripp and Eno

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno released their two previous collaborations, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, in 1973 and 1975, respectively. The former began when Eno introduced Fripp to the tape-looping technique that he would later dub “frippertronics,” and the latter built on that foundation, with greater participation by Eno. Both albums were seminal to “ambient” music—a term originally coined by Eno—and according to Fripp, No Pussyfooting represents some of his best work. Other than a compilation released in 1994 containing some unmemorable bonus tracks, that was the last we heard from Messieurs Fripp and Eno for the past 30 years.

Hearing The Equatorial Stars for the first time, I experienced the emotions one feels upon greeting old friends who have been away for a long time, and finding them well and in good spirits. Although the music on the album was created using modern computer editing techniques rather than analog tape manipulation, the essential vibe remains the same. Eno’s musical contributions are more reminiscent of his On Land period than either of the first two F&E albums, but Fripp’s adroit guitar work—this time using what sounds like a Fernandez Sustainer rather than a “frizzbox”—charms and seduces in the same melodic yet minimalist manner as before. This music does not break considerable new ground, but given its inherent timelessness, that’s more a comfort than a criticism. DGM. —Barry Cleveland

Dead Combo

Dead Combo

Dead Combo

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: What do you get when you mix two weird Finnish dudes, a Moog synth, and a solidbody Mosrite? Answer: Dead Combo, of course! If you could imagine Ron Asheton hanging out with pioneering synth duo, Suicide, you’d be getting close to what the Dead Combo are all about. But the duo’s take on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” lays bare their true mission, as it displays their eagerness to not only deconstruct pop tradition, but pompous pop stars as well. Dead Combo’s guitar tones go a long way toward defining their mission, as well, as they sound like a Boss Digital Metalizer plugged directly into the board. Yum, indeed. Needless to say, these guys aren’t for the faint of heart, but, then again, a lot of cool stuff never is. Output Recordings. —Darrin Fox

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Brand New Strings

Ricky Skaggs

Multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs has always featured hot guitarists and monster mandolin, banjo, and fiddle players in his legendary roots-country and bluegrass ensembles. Skaggs' current lineup features Cody Kilby, who won the 1998 National Flatpick Guitar championship at age 17. Wielding a Bourgeois flat-top, Kilby lays down clean, fast lines and outrageous solos that push the envelope of acoustic lead guitar. His clarity, power, and dexterity are matched by an ability to spin melodies that sound delightfully free, yet artfully composed. Bryan Sutton—Skaggs’ previous flat-top virtuoso—adds his magic touch on two songs, and Tele terror Johnny Hiland burns on the title track. Mandolinist Andy Leftwich deserves special mention for his rippling, warp-speed phrases. Even if you’re not drawn to bluegrass, this album’s state-of-the-art picking will mess you up. Skaggs Family Records. —Andy Ellis

Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks

It Came from Nashville: The Deluxe Full-Grown Edition

Webb Wilder

This buffed-out version of the first It Came from Nashville, released some 18 years ago, contains a bevy of previously unreleased live tracks, making it an ideal way to get acquainted (if for some silly reason you haven’t yet) with this band’s unique roots-rock bag, which has been labeled at various times "swampadelic," "hillbilly gothic," "uneasy listening," "modabilly," etc.—you get the idea. Wilder is an electrifying vocalist and guitarist, and though his shtick is obviously guided by alien forces, there’s no denying his ability to make an audience remain as attentive as a group of intoxicated rednecks watching a pig on a motorized barbeque. The sizzling guitar work of Donny “The Twangler” Roberts acts like shot of nitrous oxide in a hot V8, and the result is one of the hippest party records you can have sittin’ next to that stack of B-52 CDs. Landslide. —Art Thompson

Junior Brown

Down Home Chrome

Junior Brown

On his seventh solo album, Junior Brown augments his signature truck-driving, honky-tonk twang with cool lounge-lizard jazz guitar (“You Inspire Me”), soulful Albert King-style string bending (“Monkey Wrench Blues”), and even occasional horns. But the highlight is Brown’s Guit-Steel—a custom doubleneck hybrid of Tele and lap steel—which lets him jump mid-song between 6-string chicken pickin’ and whining 8-string tone-bar licks. His steel playing is remarkable: Whether comping Western swing chords, plucking cry-in-your-beer country fills, or whipping out stuttering double-stops, Brown nails his lines with righteous intonation and a fat, swooping tone. As always, he delivers his tongue-in-cheek lyrics in a resonant baritone, his Guit-Steel timbres are unfettered with digital processing, and his solos have a live, reckless edge. Telarc. —Andy Ellis

Fu Manchu

Start the Machine

Fu Manchu

It was clear that Fu Manchu were at a turning point with 2001’s California Crossing. Their corpulent, overtly fuzzy guitars were toned down in favor of a still heavy, but less raspy, radio-friendly timbre, and their songs were fleshed-out (or smoothed-out, depending on your tastes) with bigger choruses and guitar layering. As a longtime fan of the band’s legendary fuzz histrionics, as well as their more open-ended songwriting, I found the results mixed. But the Fu have been bustin’ their asses for 13 years now, so how could you blame them for not only trying to broaden their audience, but expanding their own musical horizons, as well? Thankfully, Start the Machine begins to find a happy medium between their new direction, and their recorded legacy, which peaked with 2000’s King of the Road. Guitarists Scott Hill and Bob Balch sport tones that have way more hair on them this time around, at times even sounding like their fuzz boxes are triumphantly Velcroed back on their pedalboards. Balch’s solos are leaner and meaner, making them a nice fit with the tighter song structures, but the general stoniness that permeated the group’s previous albums is out, and a new-found fondness for aggro is in (although this is somewhat offset by the hazy instrumental “Out to Sea”). That aside, Fu Manchu are still one of the finest purveyors of absolutely crushing riff rock. And in my book, that still goes a long way. DRT. —Darrin F

Sum 41


SUM 41

Chuck is a collection of the same energetic ranting that Sum 41 never fails to produce. The record’s overall sound is heavier than their previous albums, and the lyrics are darker, more intelligible (and audible), and rooted in experience. However, some of the tracks leave you with that distant feeling of “I think I’ve heard this somewhere before.” Many of Chuck’s riffs are lifted straight out of the ’80s metal playbook, particularly Metallica, Megadeth, and Guns N’ Roses (“The Bitter End” sports a solo that almost sounds like a Slash tribute). But guitarists Dave Brownsound and Biz arrange these riffs cleverly enough to grab you by the armpit hair and force you to pay attention. Make no mistake, Sum 41’s punk/pop pedigree is in full effect, and the hooks are on. The ballad “Slipping Away,” with its simplistic arpeggios and subtle, yet strong, harmonic accents proves how catchy and emotive Sum 41 can make a song when they’re not trying too hard. Island. —Pamela Porosky

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