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Steve Earle
El Corazon
(Warner Bros.)

When the country-music establishment turned its back on Earle, a reformed junkie and unrehabilitated loudmouth, he turned his back on the country-music establishment. For that reason and many others, you'll in all likelihood never hear selections from this recording on C&W radio--and that's a pisser, because the album showcases everything that's right about American roots music. The lead track, "Christmas in Washington," sounds like the kind of ballad that was once John Prine's trademark, but the words are pure Earle: As he watches politicians running in place like mindless gerbils, he recounts his own failings even as he wishes for the return of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and anyone else with the nerve to demand something better from their supposed leaders. That's followed by "Taneytown," a remarkable narrative about murder, lynching and the impossibility of justice that's powered by a Neil Young riff, and ten more songs that are just as good (and in several cases, even better) as the material heard on I Feel Alright, Earle's wonderful 1996 return to the major-label wars. There are echoes of inspirations here: "Telephone Road" lopes along Springsteen-style, "You Know the Rest" is the sort of slangy, mock-historical ditty that Dylan used to deliver before he lost his sense of humor and his will to live, and "I Still Carry You Around" recalls Bill Monroe by virtue of a bluegrass arrangement and the presence of guest star Del McCoury. But what's best about El Corazon are the presence of songs like "Poison Lovers," a gorgeous duet with Siobhan Kennedy, and "Here I Am," a self-mythologizing country rocker (with the accent on rock)--efforts whose singularity ensures that they will sound great long after Earle is dust. The tale of the artist underappreciated in his own time is a familiar one, and Earle, a man whose voice frequently mixes impudence, anger and regret into an aural Molotov, would likely have little patience for it. But while interchangeable pretty boys in $200 hats croon hackneyed rhymes against musical backdrops with all the country credibility of George Bush, Earle is quietly adding another heartfelt chapter to this nation's musical heritage. And it would be nice if someone noticed.

--Michael Roberts

Various Artists
The Inner Flame
(Atlantic)

Why buy a major-label tribute record, of which only a portion of the proceeds go to the struggling artist in question, when you could instead buy the artist's own albums and contribute directly? This salute to Rainer Ptacek, which is intended to help the desert bluesman cover medical expenses he's incurred while battling brain cancer, begs the question--and the answer it provides is probably not the one the disc's organizers would prefer to hear. Ptacek, a Czech descendent who moved to Tucson in the early Seventies, makes quiet, painful records that bristle with metallic scratching and sliding sounds that emanate from his National Steel guitar. Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, who co-produced The Inner Flame with Robert Plant, comes close to capturing this style on the excellent title track, which Ptacek penned for the occasion; it's akin to a dark meander down a dirt road. Almost as good is "Rudy With a Flashlight," delivered by Lemonhead Evan Dando in a hung-over, mumbling manner that recalls Lou Reed's Songs for Drella, and Plant and Jimmy Page's "Rude World," highlighted by gentle feedback and a funky beat, is passable. But it's all downhill from there. PJ Harvey contributes little more than her name (her caco-phonous "Losin' Ground" is boring noise), Emmylou Harris sings "The Good Book" without an ounce of feeling, and Vic and Tina Chesnutt, Victoria Williams and Jonathan Richman do no better. The Gelb-delivered line "This story's out of place" proves all too appropriate.

--Jack Jackson

The Rolling Stones
Bridges to Babylon
(Virgin)

Okay, folks, here's some insight into big-time music reviewing. The folks at Rolling Stone have a vested interest in maintaining a good relationship with Mick Jagger; after all, the magazine wound up with its moniker largely because of publisher Jann Wenner's fondness for the band of almost the same name--and since Wenner continues to oversee the operation, everyone in his employ knows that ripping these guys would win him a quick trip to the unemployment line. Hence the writers given the task of reviewing new Stones discs tend to give them four-stars-or-better raves, describing them as returns to form following spottier predecessors (which just happened to earn four-star raves when they came out as well). So what's a poor Stones fan to think when he picks up this CD and discovers that it's pretty much the same middling album the boys have been making for well over a decade? Press reports have focused on the Babylon participation of the Dust Brothers, a production team best known for its work with Beck, but that's a smokescreen: The Brothers helmed only two songs--"Saint of Me" and "Might as Well Get Juiced," a loose-limbed knock-off of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"--and both of them are buried near the end of the album. The rest of the platter was made under the supervision of Don Was, who performed similar duties for 1994's Voodoo Lounge and--surprise!--the results are virtually identical. Despite its familiarity, "Flip the Switch" is pretty catchy, and I also appreciated Wayne Shorter's soprano sax solo on the closer, the aptly titled "How Can I Stop." As for the filler that dominates elsewhere, it's tolerable, too, if for no other reason than that the Stones still sound enough like the Stones to get by. But four stars? Get the hell outta here. Jann probably doesn't even think it's that good. But at least there won't be any awkward moments the next time he has Mick over for dinner.

--Roberts

 
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