Re-make/Re-model

JIMMIE RODGERS
RCA Country Legends
(RCA/BMG Heritage)
Having seen the world like a true railroad man, Rodgers moved beyond hillbilly showbiz (Dave Macon, Frank Hutchison) without stooping to respectability (Bradley Kincaid, Vernon Dalhart). Thus he spawned tens of thousands of singers who sounded like themselves as they sang at the whole round world, and their collective achievement dulled our ear for his originality. With the country space he opened up so crowded, what can it mean to say that he outsang all but a few of his progeny? Maybe, as Bob Dylan says, "his refined style . . . is too cryptic to pin down." But inventors have a way of conveying that they're inventing something. So start with his diffident sense of hip, sincere and sly at the same time, anticipating two crucial structures of feeling: the laid-back and the cool. Add that he was also exuberant in there somewhere. Don't forget that yodel. Mention that he could swing à la Merle or Lefty when he wanted. And then admit that unvarnished Rodgers still requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That's what's so nice about the gloss here—Rodgers in jazz, pop, jug-band, Hawaiian, and just plain backed settings, from Louis Armstrong to local pros, all of whom make this his most listenable collection. Some of the songs are classics, some obscurities. Now try to tell one from the other without a scorecard. A

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF NIGERIA AND GHANA
(World Music Network import)
For a while I niggled my compilation niggles. Sunny Ade old-timers know, Tony Allen hipsters know, I've already recommended the albums whence spring the E.T. Mensah, Eric Agyeman, Stephen Osita Osadebe, and A.B. Crentsil tracks at the end, and it's quite a reach from highlife and juju of varying vintages to Adewale Ayuba's fuji drumming and Allen's Afrobeat abstractions. Soon enough, though, I was struck by how naturally it all held together, with a fundamental sound distinct from South Africa, Sahel, and the Congo nexus. Both rhythms and voices are lighter, and however much these pop styles emphasize showmanship and innovation, talky singing and associative structures impart a folk feel throughout. Thus they suggest an innocence and archaicism that need have nothing to do with their historical context or cultural intent. It's sound. And as such pure delight. A

RUN-D.M.C.
Greatest Hits
(Arista/BMG Heritage)
Utilitarian, which suits them. At least it's sequenced with a sense of continuity, and unlike the deleted Profile job, it abjures remixes, live collectibles, and Back From Hell. Sure Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell are good-to-excellent historical artifacts that render it superfluous. But what no one dares say is that by the standards of the aesthetic they made possible Run-D.M.C. are a little crude. Their rock-solid funk is more Memphis than New Orleans, their declamation the opposite of flow as Rakim defined it, their blunt rhyming neither spontaneous beat prosody nor the blaxploitation real of gangsta's true lies. In fact, for such big influences their straightforward sound is kind of unique, and their greatness harder to hear than it's supposed to be. On these 17 tracks, the consistency and reliability their hard-working music implied is a reality worthy of the lower-middle-class 'hood they represented. A

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants
(Rhino/Elektra)
With invention keeping annoyance at bay for two-times-twice-13 selections, why list omitted faves? Guys who feed songs to their pet answering machine are supposed to write more than anyone can keep track of. The Eurohit is here, the TV theme, the Austin Powers-certified Shirley Bassey parody. But I'm won over by the dozens of songs I'd never heard before, or just never noticed. Yeah their unsexxxy voices and avoidance of notes that might confuse an answering machine can be off-putting. But the wit and tunes are nonstop, not to mention the historical sketches, the music lessons, the surrealist riddles, the love songs—and more faith, hope, and charity than they let on. A

WARREN ZEVON
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon
(Elektra/Rhino)
For any owner of the 1996 Rhino double CD I'll Sleep When I'm Dead to buy this one too would impart new meaning to the term "sentimental hygiene," which could use it. Only five of its 22 tracks aren't nestled down in the twofer's squooshy stuff. But those who resisted the squooshy stuff then now get their reward, which sure beats the one that's laying for Zevon. All that's missing is the epithalamion "Let Nothing Come Between You" and the old Rhino title raver, presumably omitted for reasons of taste. A little late for that. The sardonic unlocks his humanity as well as his vitality, which is why this collection never wusses out. Stronger than sentiment are the melodies that proved him a pro. A


PICK HITS

BILLIE HOLIDAY + LESTER YOUNG:
A Musical Romance
(Columbia/Legacy)
Last year's belated twofer (four repeats) sums her up, and I should mention the 10-CD box—better completist Holiday than Sinatra or Fitzgerald or George Jones. The year's other reshuffles, Lady Day Swings and Blue Billie, are useful product. But there's never been a Holiday record I've replayed as spontaneously as this one. Nor, and this is connected, have I ever found her so credible uptempo (meaning midtempo, and fast enough). Her disdain for the trifles her '30s producers fed her can be bracing but also wearing, and while none remain trifles, some remain unnecessary. Here, that's not a problem. In love or in pain, she's smiling, she's swinging, she's dealing with it, dropping so little hint of the tragedies to come you wonder whether they were inevitable after all. She just needs the support of a man as hip and confident as Prez sounds—relaxed, savvy, off-center but that just makes him more fun. On no record, including the excellent Ken Burns, will you ever hear him so unmistakably. In real life, unfortunately, guys who play that often have a mean streak and/or a dependent side. You wonder why couldn't she make do with the worldly wisdom of Teddy Wilson, the friendly sarcasm of Buck Clayton. Because here, they too keep her smiling and swinging. A PLUS

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