George Jones

Also: Lisa Brokop, The Willowz, Carolyn Mark, Pet Shop Boys: Back to Mine, and Golden Afrique, Vol. 1.

GEORGE JONES

My Very Special Guests (Legacy Edition)

(Epic/Legacy)

I'd imagine cutting a duet with the greatest country singer in the history of recorded music would be a slightly intimidating experience. Yet the 35 acts who cohabitate with George Jones on this expanded (actually reconstituted) issue of his 1979 album sound almost uniformly comfortable—apparently something about the Possum's presence, physical or spiritual, sets his partners at ease. This relaxed mood frees Jones' '79 partners to respond to his rubbery call according to their idiosyncratic styles: They can generate intensity (an intricately soulful Elvis Costello on "Stranger in the House"), welcome camaraderie (a playfully rowdy Willie Nelson on "I Gotta Get Drunk"), or just harmonize sleepily (a barely existent James Taylor on "Bartender's Blues"). Granted, the tonkless young honkies with whom Jones recut his classics in 1994 on The Bradley Barn Sessions sound too relaxed, and Ladies' Choice duets with nonentities Janie Fricke and Lacy J. Dalton (what, was Juice Newton busy?) were unnecessary two decades ago. Still, several post-'79 cuts, including the tasteless Ray Charles romp "We Didn't See a Thing" and Shelby Lynne's 1988 potential-baring turn on "If I Could Bottle This Up," deserve salvaging. Had Legacy whittled this to a single disc—My Very Special Guests itself could stand to slough off Johnny Paycheck and Emmylou Harris—we'd have a worthy companion to Jones' collected pairings with Tammy Wynette and Melba Montgomery. Instead, George Jones fans, who have long accepted the inability of labels to compile him perfectly, will set this beside our many other imperfect collections. KEITH HARRIS

LISA BROKOP

Hey, Do You Know Me?

(Curb)

Mike Curb, whose label releases music by Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, and LeAnn Rimes, once ran MGM Records, which he famously purged of "drug-oriented" bands, including the Velvet Underground, whose song "White Light/White Heat" and whose songwriter's later solo album Metal Machine Music were both about methamphetamine. Now, class prejudice has country fans and crank going together like furs and shiny leather boots, and this singer from speed-saturated Surrey, B.C., is the latest angel of Lou Reed's revenge. The songs with a Brokop credit are the best ones lyrically because they have twists in them—underneath the multiple, inexplicable pseudo-autobiographical references to Southern U.S. locations ("Okeechobee," "Beale Street") are moments of "crystal" clarity: "I'm a beggar on the street"; "So he starts stressin' out"; and a concise sketch of what sketchballs do all day, "Dance, though there's no music playin'." Surrey is also a hot spot for street racing and car theft (one's stolen every 84 minutes), which gives "Lime Green Pacer" ("A gift, if you could call it that") a smirking frisson, although even an "eight-track" (!) player wouldn't stay in the car the length of a stoplight up there these days. Every underclass eventually rises, and the meth-heads are handing over their untouchable-caste status to the "lith-heads"—those who prefer undiluted battery acid, sucking the juice from the power that generates portable music technology. Their AAs will probably die before they get to track four, "Ladylike," an update of Transformer-era Reed about "a woman redefined" that transliterates "camp" as "RV park," vogueing like it's about to drop a dime on Gretchen Wilson's trailer before the kitchen chem lab blows it up. In Brokop's Surrey, the fringe comes out on top. DAVE QUEEN

THE WILLOWZ

Talk in Circles

(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

The Willowz have more songs than you. A modest claim to squeak into the maelstrom of garage-rock boasts, where length-of-schlong or depth-of-record-collection often prevails. But unless you've got the scene connections to benefit from said length or depth, access to a bottomless punk-tune well is way more useful. Well, unless the bravado proves delusional: The 2005 reissue of this L.A. quartet's 2004 debut, The Willowz, added Are Coming and four new tracks, derailing the original's nine-song rush and slowing down to wonder, "Whatever happened to rock and roll?" So when one (of 20!) tunes on their (hour-long!) follow-up laments, "Those modern girls don't do it for me," suspicions that these deserving kids have mated the wasteful work ethic of Bob Pollard with the time-capsule tunnel vision of Bob Seger may be justified . . . but wrong. In fact, the band's formalism precludes dilettantism, just as their frisky lack of commitment counteracts their trad impulses. Sprinkled catchphrases like "You only get one chance/Don't blow it on romance" or "Angst is now boring/It's sex they're adoring" jostle one another with a contradictory restlessness befitting a string of journal entries: Each is deeply meant, if maybe only for the moment. And though singer Richie James Folin's thin timbre suggests taunt or whimper, he abstains from the self- centered jerkiness that would allow him to degenerate into either, balancing proud against rueful expertly enough to sketch a real consciousness behind a cool pose like, "Manipulation gets me through." KEITH HARRIS

CAROLYN MARK

Just Married: An Album of Duets

(Mint)

Who in their right mind could resist a good-time woman who takes no shit? On record, at least, that's Victoria, B.C., native Carolyn Mark's trademark—along with a throaty, casually huge voice that seems made for rock until you hear her twist a vowel or two in the name of a long-bygone Nashville. Maybe Mark is tired of comparisons with her best-known duet partner, fellow Corn Sisters member Neko Case: The highlight of "Vincent Gallo," from last year's great The Pros and Cons of Collaboration, was Mark smirking, "He was hanging out with me and Neko/And then Neko had to go, thank God." Either way, Just Married pairs Mark with a series of folks you've likely never heard of. None of them trumps Mark vocally or personalitywise, but most of them keep up. "Fireworks," sung with the honeyed-gruff NQ Arbuckle, is the sound of a tingle becoming a chill: "Said you like fireworks?/Well, I'll give you fireworks/Come on, you coward/Burn my schoolhouse down." "Done Something Wrong" is '60s Stax with an undermixed rhythm section, complete with horns-led bridge and Mark and co-vocalist Ford Pier joshing each other like a northern Otis and Carla, and with Pier's squalling soul-squeal near the end and Mark throwing in a nice modern twist: "We've been through this before/It's that stupid Internet." And when Mark and Luke Doucet cover the hoariest country standard of them all, Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," they do it slow and drunkenly, which is to say, honorably. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Pet Shop Boys: Back to Mine

(DMC/Ultra)

When the lights come blindingly up as a club prepares to close, it's a natural impulse to seek out an after-party—usually at someone's apartment. This idea is central to DMC/Ultra's after-hours DJ mix series. On the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough single "West End Girls," Pet Shop Boys' Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant are given reign over the 20th edition of Back to Mine and the unique pleasure of manning a double disc, where duos Underworld, New Order, and Groove Armada were forced to cram years of combined musical knowledge into one. The best installment of the series since Everything but the Girl's 2001 turn, Lowe's glam-heavy half governs those who keep on grooving, while Tennant's gently pulses with alternating ambient and classical. Honoring friends and influences, Lowe links "Passion," composed for the prefab Flirts by early '80s hi-NRG producer Bobby O, who worked with the Boys early in their career, through Italo-disco and Queen to "I Was Born This Way," by gay-rights activist minister and onetime Motown artist Carl Bean. The late Dusty Springfield, for whom the Boys' 1987 duet "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" was written, appears wistfully on both sets: Lowe taps the melodramatic "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love," while Tennant suspends her "Goin' Back" among the eerie glitch and hints of thunder of Vessel's "Tiny" and Elgar's "Sospiri Op. 70," conducted by Londoner Sir John Barbirolli for the 1966 Philharmonic Orchestra. Tennant's haunting, predawn set is the perfect companion piece to his partner's, naturally. RACHEL SHIMP

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Golden Afrique, Vol. 1

(Network, Germany)

The classic rumba-based, guitar-and-horn-led Afropop that was first carved out by Congolese musicians like Franco in the '50s and later spread throughout the continent, reaching a creative peak in the '70s and '80s, has never gotten the (multiple) box sets it deserves. So count this mouthwatering double-CD anthology as a step in the right direction—it's even packaged in a bright green long box that won't fit on your CD shelves. So file it with the books and get down. Spanning 1971–83 and, with the exception of Maitre Gazonga's luxuriously speedy opener "Les Jalous Saboteurs," from north-central Chad, concentrating on West Africa (the 24 cuts lean heavily on Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast), Golden Afrique, Vol. 1 is as good a one-stop history lesson in the stuff as you're going to find. Disc one concentrates on the high and clean, with guitars sparkling and horns snapping—see Amadou Balaké's "Taximen" and Sory Bamba du Mali's "Dis-Moi la Vérité" for prime examples of the former and latter, respectively. Disc two is both rougher and gentler, starting with a quartet of gritty tracks by Super Mama Djombo, No. 1 de Dakar, and Etoile de Dakar, Youssou N'Dour's first band. (The latter's "Thiely," from 1979, is an altogether mellower take on the piercing cut that highlights Earthworks' great The Music in My Head compilation, from 1998.) The groove mellows some toward the middle but still bubbles—see the assured horn bridge of Guelewar Band of Banjul's "Warteef Jiggeen" or the self-explanatory "Samba" by Amazones de Guinee. Maybe the best thing about this collection is its subtitle—because it promises that there will be more. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

 
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