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Our critics' pics in new releases

Buddy Miller
Midnight and Lonesome
Hightone Records CD

One must assume that the title of this new one from Buddy Miller, his fourth solo release for rootsy West Coast label Hightone, represents a bit of poetic license: it's doubtful that Mr. Miller ever finds himself alone at 12 o'clock. For one thing, he's got his home recording studio in Nashville, which I picture brimming with other country-leaning musicians around the clock, swapping songs and stories. And when Miller's not there, he can be found lending his guitar-playing and harmonizing skills to records by such kindred spirits as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Duane Jarvis, and Greg Trooper. Miller's one of Nashville's most talented--and, by all accounts, most likable--musicians, so it's hard to picture him lonesome.

That's not even mentioning the woman with whom he shares that home studio, his wife and musical partner Julie Miller, who wrote or co-wrote seven of Midnight and Lonesome's 11 songs including the title track. (OK, so maybe she's the one who's lonesome. Nah.) They sure do work and play well together, as shown by their co-penned "Little Bitty Kiss," a frisky bit of honky-tonk that's a perfect fit for Miller's warm and twangy vocals. The album ends with two strong Julie Miller contributions, the Cajun number "Oh Fait Pitie D'Amour (Love Have Mercy on Me)" and "Quecreek," a moving, country-gospel tribute to the nine men freed from Pennsylvania's Quecreek Mine on the morning that Miller was finishing the album.

As if Miller's not gifted enough already, he also continues to display excellent taste when it comes to covering other folks' songs. Midnight and Lonesome kicks off with "The Price of Love," perhaps the most rowdy item from the Everly Brothers' catalog (a tune that BR549 tackled on last year's This is BR549), and "A Showman's Life," a song written and previously recorded by journeyman Jesse Winchester, is given an especially soulful reading. And the remaining cover is another case of dramatization, that being Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love." Buddy Miller, I think that woman has already been sent to you.
–Rick Cornell

Solomon Burke
Soul Alive!
Rounder Records

They just don't make 'em like this anymore. This live tape of one of the King of Soul's shows in the '80s reveals Solomon Burke in all of his royal and radiant glory. But Burke's no nostalgia hack reveling in past glories, as he proved with this year's excellent Fat Possum release, Don't Give Up On Me, which featured the singer performing songs written for him by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits.

On Rounder's Soul Alive, taken from a 1983 performance, you can hear his effect on the audience. Women are shouting out offers no man would refuse. Burke's fine with all that, telling his fans that he'll be happy to bring his big, fat, fine self on home to you, and you, and you.

Soul Alive is a rendering of Burke's greatest hits. But unlike a lot of artists who rush through a stapled together collection of their biggest sellers, Burke likes to wallow around in his past glories to see if they still fit, stretching them out a bit and making himself and the audience comfortable with them once again.

One of the singer's main strengths has always been his commitment to giving his all in live performance, whether the hall held 200 or 200,000. In an ill-promoted local show a few years back only about 30 people showed up, but Burke entertained them like it was a command performance for royalty.

One reason that Burke was and is able to touch his audience so intensely is that while many soul performers claimed to testify to an audience, Burke is an honest-to-God preacher. He holds the title of Bishop in the church that his grandmother founded, the House Of God For All People, where he preached his first sermon at the age of 7.

And while this is a great frozen moment in time, it's made even better by the fact that recent recordings still show that Solomon Burke still has the voice, the fire and the fervor that made him King of Soul then, and now.
–Grant Britt

Various Artists
Zydeco: The Essential Collection
Rounder Records

The Rounder Heritage series is one of the best deals in the business. The company is celebrating it's 30 years of existence by putting out a 30 album series of records that comb its considerable archives for the best artists in a particular genre or the best material from an artist's body of work. For the Zydeco: The Essential Collection, Rounder selected 17 cuts spanning several generations of performers. Zydeco is essentially black music from Louisiana that has French, African and Caribbean influences.

Traditional is a word that hardly applies to zydeco--it's a blend of R&B, blues, gospel, Cajun, rock and folk music that doesn't linger on any of it's components very long. The music is in a continuous state of development--artists continually reinterpret and rearrange the sounds that have preceded them. About the only constant is the accordion as lead instrument and the chanky-chank rhythm.

For this collection, the company selected music spanning a couple of generations. Boozo Chavis is credited with having the first zydeco hit record in '54, preceding by a year the man considered to be the father of zydeco, Clifton Chenier. John Delafose and his Eunice Playboys play a more traditional style of the music in that it doesn't have the heavier rock influence that his son Geno would bring into the family after his death, but it still manages to step pretty lively.

Nathan Williams and his Zydeco Cha-Chas are probably the most lively and lyrically inventive of the younger generation of zydeco performers. Of the two of his cuts included here, "Outside People" represents the best of zydeco's marriage with rock. Beau Jocque also represents the music's rougher, rockier side, and though he was trained by one of zydeco's icons, fiddler Dewey Balfa, Steve Riley presents the best of Zydeco's experimental side, and rocks pretty good himself.

If you're a newcomer to the music, this is about as good an introduction as you'll find. If you're a fan, say hello to some old friends and enjoy the fact that they've been gathered in one place for your listening and dancing pleasure.
–Grant Britt

Shemekia Copeland
Talking to Strangers
Alligator

This is Shemekia Copeland's coming of age record. Up until this point, Copeland has tried to be KoKo Taylor, blustering and shouting her way through the material. But on her latest release on Alligator, Talking to Strangers, Copeland seems to have found her voice.

It's not a still, small voice--there's still plenty of power, but she sounds more in control. It's a fuller, more soulful sound than before--a black Tracy Nelson on some of the slower material, and her fine funky self on the more upbeat material. There's a much heavier dose of funk on this record than on previous ones as well--due no doubt to having Dr. John performing producer duties.

Copeland seems more relaxed, more confident in her ability to deliver a song without beating the audience over he head with over the top histrionics. It's also a crossover record for the blues singer. There's more rock on this offering, making it much more radio friendly. The New Orleans second line funk of the "Livin On Love" cut has propelled it to the top of the adult rock radio charts. But on Strangers, Copeland proves she's no one hit wonder--the CD is packed with little jewels like "Too Much Traffic," a backstage glimpse at a lover who lives like a rock star, with too much female groupie traffic to suit the singer. "Ka-Ching" is the sound of payback, a cash register ringing up the price of goodies Copeland's gonna collect because of an ex-lover's two-timing antics. "Pie In The Sky" is one of her daddy's, Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland's signature tunes, and she blasts away at it with a fire and funk that would have made her father proud.

It's not easy listening music, but it is easy on the ear. With Talking To Strangers, Shemekia Copeland has discovered that the noise you make in the music business isn't necessarily about how loud you are, but about how you say what you have to say.
–Grant Britt

Various Artists
Carolina Soul Survey:
The Reflection Sound Story

Grapevine Records CD (www.grapevine2000.co.uk)

In the '70s, with Wayne Jernigan at the helm, Charlotte, N.C.'s Reflection Sound Studios were the home of many country and beach music sessions as well as the tweaking of tracks from such New Orleans artists as Ernie K-Doe, the Meters, and Lee Dorsey. But Reflection Sound Studios also gave the world, or at least the Southeast, some superb original soul material, a statement that Carolina Soul Survey backs up with verve and passion.

A quick eyeballing of a U.S. map shows Charlotte to be a little closer to northern Alabama than it is to Philadelphia. It's fitting then that the soul music coming out of Charlotte in the '70s--at least that captured here--was closer to the slightly gritty, church-bred sounds cooked up in Muscle Shoals than to the slicker, over-stringed stuff from Philly. For starters, there's Arthur Freeman's screamin', brassy (in several senses of the word) "Played Out Playgirl." Sure, "you're just a played out playgirl" is a relatively tame damning in today's context, but it still stings. Carol Humphries, who made the trip to Reflection from Columbia, S.C., has two memorable contributions: the catchy mid-tempo "I Don't Want Nobody" (written by Ron Henderson, who along with his group, Choice of Color, has three cuts on the compilation) and "So I Can Love You," a ballad enriched by the country-soul guitar work of an anonymous session player. Best of all is Louis King and "Our Love Will Overcome Everything," a Doc Pomus co-write that's presented in two equally likable versions.

The artists on Carolina Soul Survey certainly don't qualify as household names; fact is, they weren't household names back when these songs were recorded. (The one contributor who may ring a bell is Dottie Pearson, and that's because after her stint at Reflection, she returned to her first love, gospel music, where's she forged an impressive career under the name Dottie Peoples.) That doesn't matter, of course. What matters is that their work remains so appealing some 25 years down the road. That, and finding out that the Marlboros from Greensboro, N.C.--the group behind the bouncy gem "Why'd You Leave"--is still out there playing the local clubs.
–Rick Cornell

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