- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

TRAFFICLast ExitJohn Barleycorn Must DieTraffic (Island)

The good news is that the latest releases in the remastered Traffic series sound as good as the first ones. The crispness of the acoustic instruments in particular is remarkable, highlighting sounds that even longtime listeners never knew were there.

The bad news is Island's chintzy packaging.

In short, while "Traffic," the band's second album, and the now-legendary "John Barleycorn Must Die" sound better than ever, the accompanying material for each release includes no new photographs and a one-page "essay" that reads as though written in 20 minutes. These CDs are prime examples of how to disrespect a great band.

The two bonus cuts on "Barleycorn" are interesting new additions but add nothing to the legacy of Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. Like the extra cuts on "Traffic," three rare mono and stereo mixes, they are for completists only. And what happened to the excellent live material added to the British version of "Barleycorn" released last year?

The new edition of "Last Exit" is the worst offender, though, clocking in at 34 minutes, without one additional second of unreleased material and the briefest packaging of all. Why weren't the concert cuts from the British "Barleycorn" shifted to "Last Exit" to complement the latter's live recordings and fill out the CD?

All this complaining aside, however, these releases do contain some glorious music. The haunting "Withering Tree" from "Last Exit," the sparkling piano workout "Glad" and the folk classic title track from "Barleycorn," and most everything on "Traffic" make these albums must-haves for any collection. But for those who expect a little bit more from re-released classics, look up the British imports.— Fran CoombsJUNIPER LANETightrope(Monkey Paw Records)

We haven't heard much about the Charlottesville sound lately. Since the Dave Matthews Band broke out in the mid-1990s, there hasn't been much heard from the town that once billed itself as the next Athens, Ga.

But Juniper Lane, a Northern Virginia bar band with roots at the University of Virginia, is releasing its second CD, "Tightrope," a dense and literary collection of folkish alternative rock songs, on April 7.

Singer Vivion Smith and guitarist Chris Bonavia, the UVa-grad founders, create a swirling and engaging sound. Miss Smith's voice is reminiscent of Fiona Apple's. The mixing and engineering is by alt-rock hero Mitch Easter, of REM fame, helping to heighten the college-radio jangle of Mr. Bonavia's guitars.

Unfortunately, the 10 tracks of the disc have a sameness in their swirl that makes it somewhat difficult for the casual listener to tell them apart. Yet, the sound is pleasing, so this is a relatively minor quibble.— Sean ScullyJEFF BEAL,TOM WAITS"Pollock" soundtrack(Unitone Recordings)

Watching the life of artist Jackson Pollock unfold in the movie "Pollock" is a journey of highs and lows — his rise to the top of the art scene to his demise through alcoholism — and the movie soundtrack, composed by Jeff Beal, helps us make that trip.

The music is quick and exciting when the artist gets a flash of inspiration or hears news of his first one-man show. But the notes are soft and lonely as Pollock's innovation fades and his marriage begins to crumble. The contrast reflects the torn feelings one may have about Pollock himself, that he was a groundbreaking artist but possessed a temper that was frightening.

No matter what the tone, the music's simplicity makes the score beautiful. The only track that doesn't seem to fit is the one song with lyrics, "The World Keeps Turning," performed by Tom Waits. The wailing, scratchy vocals of Mr. Waits come as a jarring surprise and interrupt the flow of the CD.

But the soundtrack is worth listening to, especially if you know the story of Pollock's life.— Jenine ZimmerA*TEENSTeen Spirit (MCA Records)

The A*Teens, the latest group of good-looking, singing young people, have taken their first stab at recording original music. The group's first album, a remake of songs by the 1970s pop group Abba, had the foursome opening at concerts for Britney Spears and 'N Sync. A*Teens' newest CD, "Teen Spirit," should grant them the rights to their own big name.

Their music is frilly, but it has an unusual, upbeat sound that has a listener singing along instantly. The group consists of two boys and two girls, which adds a nice element of harmony to the album.

The foursome could improve by letting up on the digitized sound effects applied to some of the vocals. Their strong, clean voices don't need so much decoration.— J.Z.THE TENDER IDOLSDistressor (E-Magine)

Two years in the making, "Distressor" is the third album from Atlanta-based rockers the Tender Idols, whose music wavers between arena-style anthems and introspective, indie-rock ballads. Their name, album cover art and Web site make them out to be heavy punk rockers, but their sound harks more to the days of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin than Black Flag or Stiff Little Fingers.

This comes through clearly in tracks such as "Afraid to Move" and "Turning the Wheel," which start out with power chord-heavy riffs and don't let up. In a market in which old-style rock is out and teen pop is in, a band that doesn't mind adding three guitars to give a song a little more weight is unusual.

When they get away from angry guitar hooks and slow the beat down, though, as on the closing track "The Two of Us (Part 2)," they veer a little too far from their more original hard rock sound. In all, the Tender Idols aren't original enough to break the stranglehold teen pop has on the airwaves, but their return to classic rock is a refreshing blast of guitar in a synthesizer-filled world.— Derek SimmonsenJOHN GORKAThe Company You Keep(Red House Records)

To live up to being tagged the pre-eminent voice of modern folk by Rolling Stone must be hard, but John Gorka has managed to keep producing meaningful work for the past decade and a half.

His eighth recording (third on Red House), which came out this week, has all the wit and edge Mr. Gorka is known for in his songs. Among these 14 tracks are two that regularly appeared on his concert playlist the past couple of years — "Let Them In," adapted from an anonymous poem found in a military hospital in the Philippines in World War II, and "People My Age," a humorous look at the effects of aging.

A couple of newer songs in this collection take shots at our reliance on technology. In "When I Lost My Faith," Mr. Gorka finds a deeper meaning to life than collecting possessions. "Surrounded by my stuff/All I found were limitations/I could not rise above." Later in the same song, he sings, "There are gadgets and contraptions/Immaculate machines/There's a program you can download now/That will even dream your dreams."

In "Oh Abraham," arguably the most socially conscious tune, Mr. Gorka observes "Work is not the same as before/More soft wear hands in the hardware store." But the song explores scandalous politics and longing for honest leadership. The singer, inspired by picking up a penny bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, wonders, "Was it all about the money then? … All moneyed up and charmed with might, so we are right, we're always right."

This album is the second of Mr. Gorka's to feature Canadian percussionist Andy Stochansky, who launches the CD in a rocking groove on "What Was That." Bassist Michael Manring, formerly of the Washington area and a regular on Mr. Gorka's recordings through the years, also makes an appearance.

Backed by the delightful harmony vocals of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucy Kaplansky and Ani DeFranco, as well as Minneapolis-based singer Kathleen Johnson, Mr. Gorka has put together a recording that is easy to listen to, again and again. But upon concentrated listening, his songs open to deeper, more satisfying and provocative meanings.— Jay VotelVARIOUS ARTISTSA Nod to Bob: An Artists'Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 60th Birthday(Red House Records)

Tribute records are a risky venture because there is no preventing comparison to the original. The greater the artist, the greater the risk.

But no recent Dylan tribute does better service than Red House Records' "A Nod to Bob," available in stores beginning in May, just in time for Mr. Dylan's 60th birthday (May 24, 1941). The Minnesota-based recording company put its considerable stable of talent into the studio for this celebration of a native son, credited with kick-starting the singer-songwriter movement and expanding folk and rock music into the realm of true literature.

The covers range from oblique and obscure to sublime and supernal. Suzzy and Maggie Roche perform "The Clothesline Saga" from Mr. Dylan's "The Basement Tapes" in perhaps the least well-known track. Hart-Rouge does a French version of "With God On Our Side," and Ramblin' Jack Elliott closes the disc with a live version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

Hardly a weak moment mars any of the 14 tracks that span Mr. Dylan's career from 1963 — John Gorka's ethereal "Girl From the North Country" from that period — to 1993 with Spider John Koerner's version of "Delia" from Mr. Dylan's "World Gone Wrong."

In between are some true delights and not a single clunker. Lucy Kaplansky serves up a heart-stopping "It Ain't Me, Babe," probably the ultimate kiss-off song ever written. The Paperboys do a double tribute with "All Along the Watchtower," reeling through a Celtic version that captures, as well, the energy Jimi Hendrix put into his cover of the song. Cliff Eberhardt takes Mr. Dylan's jangly pop and almost deranged delivery of "I Want You," and turns out a deserving soulful ballad.

With any luck, these artists will keep these songs in their repertoires and pull them out again when they tour the area.— J.V.


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