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Music Reviews

Randy's Buttons

March 12, 1997
Daniel Lanois' Latest Falls Short of His Past
    Daniel Lanois sling blade motion pic sndtrk
Daniel Lanois, Music from "Sling Blade" (Island 1996) - Master producer Daniel Lanois, who has worked with such artists as Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, U2, and Peter Gabriel, has created the soundtrack to Sling Blade. The soundtrack's understated effects help amplify the quiet tension/desperation of the film.

Created by actor/writer/director Billy Bob Thornton, "Sling Blade" is a story of Karl Childers, a retarded man released after 25 years in a southern "nervous hospital." Karl's friendship with a young boy, the boy's mother, the mother's gay friend (played with great restraint by John Ritter), and the mother's abusive boyfriend (a fiendish role for Dwight Yoakum) forms the core of the film.

Karl has great skills as a small-engine mechanic, but struggles to understand society and personal relationships. In some ways, Karl is deeply sensitive to issues of right and wrong (particularly, the boyfriend's despicable verbal abuse of the young boy); in other ways, Karl cannot tell right from wrong (as he tries to decide how to deal with the boyfriend). The film's climax, though perhaps preordained, touches on profound moral issues.

Transplanted French-Canadian Lanois, who now resides in New Orleans, has long been known for developing personal themes in the context of expansive and challenging musical arrangements. His two solo albums, Acadie and For the Beauty of Wynona have proven his prowess as a songwriter and musician.

On Sling Blade, Lanois shows that he is moving beyond the feedback-drenched guitars that graced Achtung Baby and For the Love of Wynona. Instead, Lanois moves on to a guitar sound that is more subdued, but just as intense and deeply-textured.

The soundtrack includes cameo performances by Booker T and the M.G.'s, guitarist Tim Gibbons ("Lonely One"), as well as vocals by Emmylou Harris on "Shenandoah."

But the hands-down highlight of the album is "Darlin'" by Bambi Lee Savage. Ms. Savage's touching vocal performance is the emotional highlight of the film, as Karl connects in a personal relationship with a local woman. More incredibly, this is Bambi Lee Savage's first outing as a singer; she has previously as an engineer.

In the end, Sling Blade is disappointing as a soundtrack. Lanois' contributions highlight the film, but do not create its mood: Billy Bob Thornton's performance as Karl Childers carries the film. Thus, Sling Blade is not an audio reminder of the film, nor does it set the stage like Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas.

I think a soundtrack should be a memento of a film. And that's where Sling Blade doesn't hold up. Though some of the individual tracks (including "Darlin'") are absolutely outstanding.

Beth and April Stevens-Sisters Beth and April Stevens, Sisters (Rounder 1996) - Tennessee natives Beth and April Stevens, who have recorded seven albums with the Stevens Family, have now embarked on a solo career. Sisters is a treat for fans of Allison Krause and bluegrass.

While Sisters is firmly rooted in bluegrass, the material includes "In My Time of Dying" (also recorded by Led Zeppelin), a Steve Earle song ("My Old Friend the Blues"), and "Tomorrow is Forever" by fellow east Tennessean Dolly Parton.

Older sister Beth, 28, and 22-year-old April have been recording with their family for more than a dozen years. Both attended East Tennessee State University, and are accomplished musicians. Besides the banjo, Beth plays guitar, dobro, bass, and piano: April pitches in on fiddle, guitar, bass, banjo, and piano. And on stage, they've been known to play three or four instruments in the course of one song.

The vocals on Sisters are rounded out by dad Doug Stevens, who contributes baritone harmony on several cuts. Also featured are such musicians as Ronnie Simpkins (bass), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Jeff White (guitar), Glen Duncan (fiddle), Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas (dobro), and Kenny Malone (drums).

Sisters marks a shift for these talented young ladies, as the focus is squarely on them. In addition, the material covers a broader range than on previous Stevens Family recordings.

Explains Beth, "Audiences have changed a lot since we started playing, and we have changed too. We used to feel we had to do straight traditional bluegrass because that's what audiences wanted. Now people seem to be open to a wider range of styles.

Beth continues. "We've put a lot more emphasis on our singing in recent years. Not just getting the pitch right but achieving clarity -- making sure we're getting the words across. Conveying the story in the song is what we're after."

With their sweet harmonies and earnest delivery, the Stevens sisters continue the tradition of coal miners' daughters from east Tennessee and southwest Virginia. Blue grass fans will be delighted by Sisters.

heatmiser- Heatmiser, Mic City Sons (Caroline 1996) - The quartet that comprises Heatmiser have released a minimalistic pop/rock ode in Mic City Sons. Featuring 11 tracks, Heatmiser's sound lands in a college-oriented instrumental rock groove.

Says the band, "Heatmiser started off playing high-energy rock, and over time came to moodier styles, which suited us better. Lately, the big influence has been Big Star."

Adds Heatmiser, "The people in the band are: Sam Coomes, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, and Elliott Smith. We recorded Mic City Sons at home in Portland, Oregon, with help from the guys at Bong Load Records, Tom Rothrok and Rob Schnapf. It was mixed at their place in California."

With such tracks as "Low Flying Jets" and "Pop in G," Heatmiser is truly "alternative." For something new, try Mic City Sons.

-- Randy Krbechek
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