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Tift MerrittTift Merritt, Bramble Rose (Lost Highway 2002) - Tift Merritt is the latest discovery on Lost Highway Records, a label that excels in southern roots and folk-oriented country. The 27-year-old singer from Raleigh, North Carolina has a voice of gold, which has been compared to Linda Ronstadt.

The comparisons bear merit. Listen to "I Know Him Too" and "Virginia, No One Can Warn You," and you'll hear a voice with tremendous range and potential. And the church-like ballad of "Sunday" bring to mind Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies.

Tift MerrittTift found her springboard to fame when she won the songwriting contest at Merlefest 2000 (an award previously won by Gillian Welch). Says Tift, "My win put me in a position of legitimacy. I don't think it's that easy to be thought of as a good songwriter...What was even more important is that I went back next year as a Merlefest artist, and I was so excited about that...the Merlefest audiences were so positive in their response to what I was doing. It's hard to explain how much that meant to me."

Tift MerrittTift calls her band the Carbines, which includes drummer Zeke Hutchins, bass player Jay Brown, and Greg Reading on pedal steel and dobro. Longtime Tom Petty co-hort Benmont Tench added piano just after the initial sessions were recorded. In addition, Tift herself handles lead guitars.

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has produced numerous acts in recent years, including Southern Culture on the Skids, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Ryan Adams.

Says Tift, "I'm naturally a country singer, and I'm drawn to traditional story telling, and whether country radio likes it or not, that's country music. I love strong melodies and that's something else that is typical of county music, whereas it's not a prerequisite for certain other kinds of music."

Tift MerrittBramble Rose was recorded live, vocals and all. Recalls Tift, "We decided that we'd go in the studio and that we were gonna do the record live. I know enough about [producer] Ethan Johns to know that we'd do the record live, but I didn't realize that he wanted me to sing live as well."

By the time you get to "Diamond Shoes," you'll hear that Tift is shot through with the influence of Emmylou Harris. The problem with Bramble Rose is that it is short on hummable melodies. The songs are pretty, but they don't stick with you. Thus, there is nothing on Bramble Rose that comes close to Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town.

I really want to like Tift Merritt a lot. But Bramble Rose leaves me feeling like the old Lite beer commercial- "tastes great, less filling."

StyxStyx, The Millennium Collection (A&M Records 2002) - The hardworking band Styx was always more than its prog-rock peers. The Millennium Collection gathers eleven tracks, showing that Styx could grab a catchy melody, while also keeping an eye on panty-throwing rock.

The Millennium Collection features tracks recorded from 1975 to 1990. By 1977, Styx had released its seventh album, and second with new singer Tommy Shaw, who led the band to greater heights. (Although original singer John Curulewski scored the band's first radio hit with "Lady"). The rest of the band included twin brothers John and Chuck Panozzo on drums and guitar, respectfully, Dennis DeYoung on keyboards, vocals, and synthesizers, and James Young on guitar and vocals.

The Millennium Collection includes selections from the band's hit records for A&M Records, including "Babe," "Blue Collar Blue (Long Nights)," and "Too Much Time on My Hands."

StyxPassing through The Grand Illusion (1977), which yielded the hit single "Come Sail Away," and Pieces of Eight (1978), the band delved into the concept albums Paradise Theatre (1981) and the finale for the FM radio line-up, Kilroy Was Here (1983). I always considered Kilroy Was Here to be a spectacular failure, as the band sought a mighty mixture of rock and theater, only to fall short. At the same time, tracks like "Mr. Roboto" are terrific rock numbers.

Styx has regrouped in the past decade, while Tommy Shaw when on to form Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent. The classic error of arena rock has passed, with Styx being fondly remembered.

Reggae on the RiverVarious Artists, Reggae on the River - The 10th Anniversary (Earth Beat 2002) - The double-CD set Reggae on the River celebrates the music festival held annually at Frenchie's Camp near Garberville, California. The festival is one of the best celebrations of reggae music in America, and is richly reflected on the album.

Among the artists are reggae master Jimmy Cliff ("Save Our Plant Earth" and "Treat the Youth Right"), Lucky Dube ("Back to My Roots" and "Natural Man") and Third World ("You've Got the Power"). Also, appearing are Inka Inka and Pele Juju.

Judy MowattThe highlights, by a mile, are "Na Na Na" by Annette Brissett, a loving jam, and two Bob Marley songs performed by Judy Mowatt: "I Shall Be Released" and "One Love." In fact, "One Love" is so good that it is used as a concluding number on both CDs.

"One Love" shows that Bob Marley's talents were enormous, both as a singer and a songwriter. "One Love" is an amazing track, and worth the price of admission. This song deserves some radio airplay.

Eight Crazy NightsAdam Sandler, Soundtrack to Eight Crazy Nights (Columbia Records 2002) - OK, this one's about 60 days behind schedule. Eight Crazy Nights is (or rather was) the new animated holiday feature featuring the voices of Adam Sandler.

At its core, Eight Crazy Nights is a sweet story about a misguided soul who finds compassion during the holiday season, and who helps the local old-timer, Whitey Duvall, gain recognition by his community for his good works; that recognition being a patch to sew on his jacket, given at a holiday sports banquet that the entire town attends.

Eight Crazy NightsEven more, Eight Crazy Nights, which also features cameo appearances from such Saturday Night Live alumni as Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon, and Jon Lovitz, has a Jewish theme, thereby filling a holiday gap. Adam should have done business hand-over-fist with this release.

But, Sandler (who also wrote the story) basically wrecks the film with his unnecessary gross-out jokes, including an opening drunk scene and a scene in which a port-a-potty is tipped over on one of the characters.

The soundtrack, which clocks in at 27 minutes, is a pretty fair reflection of the film. (Although considering that the film is only 75 minutes long, I wonder why the whole story wasn't included on the album.)

Eight Crazy NightsIn addition to the multiple voices of Sandler, the lovely Alison Krauss makes a guest appearance on "Long Ago." While I don't understand why someone like Alison would make her film debut in an Adam Sandler movie, I think she has a future in animated features, if she wants.

While the album costs only $9.99, it's not worth more than that. The extra stuff, including a voice message from Adam Sandler, and the "Meatball Live Action Movie" (Adams with his dog), are embarrassingly amateur. Even more, because of them, the CD won't play in my computer, which only infuriates me.

Eight Crazy NightsIn addition to the third CD version of "The Chanukah Song," I enjoyed the military style chorus of "Bum Biddy," which features Alison's sweet voice. There's no question - she's really a lovely singer.

Almost in spite of itself, Eight Crazy Nights is a pretty enjoyable soundtrack, one which I listened to more times than I want to admit. Of all the Adam Sandler albums I've heard, this is the most listenable. However, I still can't understand why Adam didn't simply release the entire soundtrack from the film on CD.

- Randy Krbechek © 2003

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