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Lizzie WestLizzie West, Holy Road: Freedom Songs (Warner Bros. 2003) - An interesting trend has developed at Warner Bros. during the past couple of years. In the early spring, they back a new female singer with pop and roots elements. A couple years ago, it was Kasey Chambers, an Australian singer who got good reviews, but with whom I never clicked.

Not so with Lizzie West. I clicked big time with Holy Road from the first time I heard it. This is a sound that I really dig, with a sharp, compressed recording style, pop/rock instrumentation, and a voice that recalls prime Natalie Merchant during her years with 10,000 Maniacs. All told, Holy Road is a winner from front to end.

Lizzie WestLizzie is age 29, and spent time busking in the subways of her hometown and also playing in her sister's café. The first, shorter version of Holy Road was self released in 2001.

Lizzie has worked hard at each step, having contributed two tracks to an HBO show (Rock the Boat), and performed on a Spike Lee-directed ad. Lizzie has a penchant for Leonard Cohen, and recorded a fine cover of "I'm Your Man" on her debut EP.

Lizzie WestDuring 2001, Lizzie packed up and hit the road. Says the singer, "I put myself on tour, looking for Leonard Cohen. He was the one who I thought could tell me my place in the culture." I'm not aware of the results of that meeting, but Lizzie says, "That trip closed a chapter in my life. After that, things began moving in another direction entirely...it was time. I needed to stop looking for my place and start making my place. I made a commitment to become more accessible and put all the passion and experience of my life into the form of an organic, honest pop album."

You're going to hear a lot of Lizzie West, as the album includes a solid handful of radio-friendly cuts, including "Time to Cry," "Dusty Turnaround," and "Hit the Road." Anyone who sings about a love that will take you higher "than two tons of cocaine" (on "Monkey Back Blues") has a good thing going.

Lizzie WestAnother terrific track is "The Day We Met," a love song with opening guitars that recall the Cowboy Junkies.

Yet the heart of Holy Road lies in the recording technique employed. All of the instrumentation is compressed, leading to a sharp, vibrant sound. The album cuts across age groups; I liked it, and so do the teens in my family.

Holy Road succeeds on all levels. This is an album that it will restore your belief in pop music. If you've been burned out by the boy bands and Pink, step up for a serving of the real thing. Take home Holy Road: Freedom Songs.

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes AroundJohnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (American/Lost Highway 2003) - Johnny Cash has recorded a great stack of music in his lifetime. The Man Comes Around is his fourth outing with producer Rick Rubin. I found the first three outings to be spare, difficult albums.

Yet The Man Comes Around is a glorious success, a masterful album and a beautiful expression of life and love. The album is filled with deeply-affecting songs, beginning with the apocalyptic images of the title track. According to Johnny, "I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote. It's based, loosely, on the Book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other Biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here."

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes AroundThe resulting track is a deeply moving exploration of faith and the hereafter. So, too, "Personal Jesus," a pop song originally recorded by Depeche Mode. Johnny wrings the sardonic out of it, and makes it a humbling experience.

Johnny's always had a bit of the lawless side in him, or perhaps better stated, an attraction for the criminal element. Thirty-five years ago, he was the Eminem of his day, with "Folsom Prison Blues."

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes AroundNow he works on his own terms, choosing songs that meet his criteria. Johnny's versions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Desperado" are haunting, without pop effect. Likewise, his versions of "Danny Boy" and "In My Life," in which Johnny takes the Beatles song and either wrecks it (according to my son) or makes it into a sublime, Leonard Nimoy classic.

Absolutely mesmerizing is his version of "I Hung My Head" by Sting. "I Hung My Head" is a three-minute story song about a man who accidentally shoots a rider out of the saddle, then winds up walking to the gallows, in a classic Johnny Cash tale. See also "Sam Hall," another tale of a criminal.

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes AroundThe musicians are a stellar crew, including Randy Scruggs, Mike Campbell, Marty Stuart, and Smokey Hormel on guitars, Benmont Tench on piano, organ, and mellotron, with a guest appearance by Billy Preston on piano on "Tear Stained Letter." Guests vocalists include Fiona Apple on "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Nick Cave on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (the Hank Williams song).

The album concludes with the bittersweet "We'll Meet Again," in which Johnny confronts his mortality, without any sadness on his part.

Johnny Cash - The Man Comes AroundAnd that's the greatness of The Man Comes Around. This album is really the culmination of a life's work as Johnny chooses songs that express his vision and belief, his recognition of past sins, and his willingness to both atone and understand those sins. The song that's getting the radio air play is Trent Reznor's "Hurt," but I don't think it's the best track on the album.

Johnny's voice is failing, his vision is failing, his health is failing. He makes no bones about any of that on The Man Comes Around. In his final outing with June Carter Cash, he stands, the man and his song, with excellent studio players (and lifelong friends) providing instrumentation. An excellent and deeply moving album, a very manly expression by a person who has given much thought to his life.

Joe Jackson Band Vol. 4The Joe Jackson Band, Vol. Four (Restless Records 2003) - The thing about Joe Jackson is, he makes music on his own terms. Ask what kind of music he performs, and you have to answer in broad terms - bright pop songs, love-torn ballads, classical instrumentals.

Vol. Four finds him reunited with his original band: Graham Maby on bass, Gary Sanford on guitar, and Dave Houghton on drums. This is the crew that played together from 1978 to 1980, recording such studio gems as "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "Sunday Papers."

Joe Jackson Band Vol. 4The band re-formed in the fall of 2002. Says Joe, "I knew these guys were good but they've surpassed all my expectations. The album is high-energy, fun, and in the spirit of the first couple of albums, but more mature. I'm a better writer now, and a better singer. But I've still got a 32-inch waist."

[To tell the truth, I always liked Joe's later work better, particularly when he formed the amazing band (including Joy Askew) that culminated in Blaze of Glory.]

Joe Jackson Band Vol. 4When I read that Joe was playing in San Francisco, with Mary Lee's Corvette on the same bill, I couldn't resist. It turns out that Joe has a remarkably enthusiastic fan core, even after 25 years: the show at The Fillmore was sold out.

And so I heard Joe perform most of Vol. Four with an absolutely polished and dead-tight band. Tracks like "Take It Like a Man" and "Fairy Dust" show four-piece power pop at its best, while "Love At First Light" allows Joe to work in a ballad theme.

The best song on the album is "Awkward Age." I'll even pin it down for you - go to about 2:15 into the song. That's the part where Graham Maby lays down on of his classic bass riffs. I was moved to a different place when they got into this groove in concert.

Joe Jackson Band Vol. 4Over the years, Joe has continued to work with Graham Maby (who also recorded with Natalie Merchant) while Gary toured and recorded with Aztec Camera and Kirsty MacColl, while Dave Houghton stayed out of the spotlight, teaching drums and playing in the south of England. Vol. Four represents Joe's first work with Dave since 1980.

Adds Joe, "I think that you need to get to a certain point of maturity to be able to indulge in nostalgia. Ten years ago I would have laughed at the idea, because I was still evolving...At first I thought it would be kind of cheesy, but then I realized I had written a bunch of songs that would work quite well for the band."

Also included is a second disk, with six live tracks recorded in September 2002. This live material sounds a great deal like the band I saw at The Fillmore.

Graham MabySome folks have been raving about the Joe Jackson shows. People in the audience saying, "I've been waiting years to hear this stuff again." Personally, I best loved the Blaze of Glory show, when Joe came out and played the whole album live, at an outdoor venue on a beautiful fall evening.

But enough of reminiscing (which is what Vol. Four entices). Joe Jackson can still write and record a terrific album, be it in a power pop vein, a classical vein, or in a three-piece jazz mode (as in the sinfully overlooked Summer in the City). Joe won't set sales records with Vol. Four. He doesn't have to. The fans are there, and will never leave him.

- Randy Krbechek © 2003

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