Various Artists Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop)

Few musicians measure up to Bruce Springsteen when it comes to spinning a good yarn. As a songwriter, he earned some of his highest praise for the harrowing storytelling on Nebraska, a sobering, dark, minimalist album recorded on a simple 4-track machine in 1982. The writing on Nebraska is vivid, moving and even poetic at times. My only problem with it is how much the music pales alongside the words—armed with just his raw voice, a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Springsteen created a soundscape that was monolithic, even claustrophobic at times. But Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen'sNebraska (in stores Tuesday) somehow eliminates all that diminished the original work. How? By pumping color and character into these dark tales of desperate outlaws and working-class woes. Here, the musical palette is richer and more diverse, ranging from the horn-accented Tex-Mex cover of "Johnny 99" by Los Lobos to Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's mandolin-and-accordion-laden "Reason to Believe" to the Delta-blues stylings of "My Father's House," which features the warm, oddly comforting vocals and slide-guitar technique of Ben Harper. The collection's most unforgettable, chilling moments, however, spring from rock goddess Chrissie Hynde and country singer Deana "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" Carter. On the opening "Nebraska," it's absolutely terrifying to hear the tough-but-tender Hynde (backed by Pretenders axe man Adam Seymour) metamorphose into a cold-blooded murderess as she declares, "Through to the badlands of Wyoming/I killed everything in my path." Holy shit. Then at the end of "State Trooper," the vulnerable, whispery-voiced Carter left me shivering from this fragile-yet-frosty farewell: "Hey, somebody out there/Listen to my last prayer/Hi-ho, Silver-o/ Deliver me from nowhere." Born to run, indeed.

ORGY
VAPOR TRANSMISSION
ELEMENTREE/REPRISE

The title is just a craftier way of saying "fart," really. And 54 minutes of breaking wind would be vastly more entertaining—not to mention melodic—than the 54 minutes of "music" found on this plastic turd. (Rich Kane)

THIEVERY CORPORATION
THE MIRROR CONSPIRACY
EIGHTEENTH STREET LOUNGE

File this under Swanky World Music for Dummies. Since their 1997 debut Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi introduced America to down-tempo dub/lounge, Washington, D.C.'s Thievery Corporation (Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) have been lauded and cheered as serious avatars of chilling out. And you have to admit, after listening to their latest collection, The Mirror Conspiracy, that for a couple of guys who make new tunes simply by sampling and fiddling with their vast record collections, they do create provocative, sultry songs that yield as much emotion as any modern pop songwriter. This is an album on which formula benefits the overall vibe, though there's a bit more exploration on Mirror Conspiracy than on their debut—perhaps because they've been able to afford record-buying binges in more exotic locales. The sitars, tablas and layered rhythms still fit the Thievery mold of making it funky in a soothing kind of way. For the foundation, Garza and Hilton stick with what got them there: lots of deep-and-deeper dub bass sounds that get practically bottomless at all the right moments, string washes, horns, pianos, keys, and an occasional coo from a French femme. It all combines into what's got to be the let's-get-it-on album of the year—something to slip on when it's time to put down the gin and tonic and slide over to the other side of the couch. (Michael Coyle)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
VIVA CUBOP 2: DANCE THE AFRO-CUBAN WAY
CUBOP

CuBop isn't just the name of a San Francisco-based record label; it's also quickly becoming a slicker way of saying "Latin jazz," a mark of quality that's making it easier for people to find that perfect sound without plowing through millions of records. The soul of these rhythms is captured wonderfully on this compilation, a more beat-driven follow-up to last year's traditional-leaning first volume. It's all good stuff—with such players as Arturo Sandoval involved, it really can't be bad—but perhaps the biggest revelation here is that some of the best CuBoppers live in California and—huh?—England. London's Snowboy, in fact, is one of the saucier participants on this compilation, his "Oya Ye Ye" enriching the venerable Afro-Cuban sound with a mysterious trance synth that spices up an already-hot salsa rhythm without tripping over a single beat. Southern Californians Bobby Matos & the Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars represent more straight-ahead Latin jazz grooves. But this CD's real gems are new songs from older CuBoppers Jack Costanzo and Dave Pike. These guys may have been mere sidemen when they played sessions with Elvis Presley and Herbie Hancock, but the feisty, ass-wiggling tunes showcased here could push them to the front of any company. While the first CuBop compilation stressed listening, this collection is clearly designed for movement—it's music more raw and satisfying than anything lauded during the recent Latin Grammys telecast. Which brings us to the final CuBop command: "Get on the dance floor!" (Andrew Asch)

 
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