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Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band
The Mountain
(E-Squared)

Ricky Skaggs
Ancient Tones
(Skaggs Family)

If the Del McCoury Band wants to change its name to the Dukes and stay with this guy permanently, who can complain?

Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band were not strangers before The Mountain was recorded last autumn. The bluegrass band backed Earle on "I Still Follow You Around" from his 1997 El Corazon album. This CD--a whole record of Earle with the Del McCoury Band behind him--is just a natural progression.

And it ought to be considered one of Earle's best efforts ever. Prior albums by Earle have been mixed bags of folk, country, blues, rock, Irish, and whatever else Earle felt like doing to make a song work. The Mountain, on the other hand, should remind Earle fans of '95's strictly folk Train a Comin' in its adherence to a single style. He simply has taken a pack of great compositions--something Earle always does, anyway--and fitted them around one killer bluegrass band.

The two artists fit like the swimsuits in the recent issue of Sports Illustrated. It's as if they have been doing this for years. This is all bluegrass, but it's all Steve Earle, too. If anything, it shows how Earle's penchant for writing songs about working-class schlemiels screwed by the rich and powerful are perfect fodder for bluegrass and its glorification of the common people. Earle's Texas drawl is somewhat shocking for anyone used to the Appalachian moan of the typical bluegrass singer, but you get used to it after a while. In fact, it'll probably grow on you by track four, where Earle and Iris DeMent mix their twangy voices in the moving "I'm Still in Love With You."

Earle's storytelling abilities are peaking. "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues" is the song Woody Guthrie forgot to write. "Dixieland," the tale of a young Irish Fenian who flees to America to avoid certain hanging by the British, only to find himself battling for a president in the Civil War, recalls "Ben McCullough" from Train a Comin' in its theme that the Civil War was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. "Carrie Brown," in Earle's own words, is a "real, bad-tooth hillbilly murder ballad," and as fine a one as you'll ever hear.

All the while, the Del McCoury Band is in fine form. Ronnie McCoury's mandolin and Jason Carter's fiddle, sometimes joined by Nashville session whiz Stuart Duncan, tear into the new songs as if they were "Pretty Polly" or "East Virginia Blues." The instrumentals, including "Connemara Breakdown" and "Paddy on the Beat," showcase McCoury and company at their best. If you have any apprehension about Earle doing a straight bluegrass disc, check them at the door and dig The Mountain for the masterpiece it is.

Ricky Skaggs made four albums of the finest examples of country's new traditionalism over the early half of the '80s. As a protege of Emmylou Harris, he was heavily influenced by Harris's reverence for old-time country, while at the same time he was helping Emmylou move into bluegrass. Skaggs, the former member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys, has his fingerprints all over Roses in the Snow.

Something happened in the late '80s. Skaggs got boring. He tried to join the Nashville mainstream. Why? Perhaps he didn't feel up to taking on young critical faves like Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Lyle Lovett. Maybe his well simply ran dry.

Come back, baby. Bluegrass never forgets.
Skaggs has released another album of hard-core bluegrass. Ancient Tones follows in the footsteps of the marvelous Bluegrass Rules, a stunning return to his adolescence, when Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley were the wYnderkinder of Stanley's band. Okay, you've heard most of these songs before. Three each were written by either the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe. Three others are traditional tunes made famous by either the Stanleys or Monroe, or both.

That's all right. For the person with an extensive bluegrass music collection, it's still a pleasure to hear Skaggs pick. The guy is one of the best, and he doesn't simply xerox the songs on which he was raised. "Pig in a Pen," for example, has been sent into a state of frenzy. Comparing it to the Stanley Brothers' original is like comparing Jeff Gordon's driving to your mother's.

And because he's still a name, no doubt many people who barely know Stanley, Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury et al will pick up on the disc, just because Skaggs has never been perceived as some manure-kicking hillbilly. And if he gets a few folks curious about those older masters, more power to him. Skaggs and his band, Kentucky Thunder, are A-list bluegrass.

--Steve Byrne

Funky Green Dogs
Star
(Twisted America/MCA)

Disco never died. The haircuts and clothes just got better, and the music merely slinked back to the club culture that spawned it in the first place. The mainstream may have grown tired of white suits, disco balls, and out-of-the-closet tunes, and put out the disco inferno going on in its own backyard, but somewhere in clubland, disco is alive and thriving. A natural evolution has taken place, and its revolution will be conducted by a DJ. The line that connects Indeep, Crystal Waters, and Madonna '99 is a continuous one, with a common goal: a quest for the perfect beat.

Miami-based Funky Green Dogs have found something pretty close to the perfect beat on Star, their second album. Bringing dance music back to properly primed floors with furious bpms that slap away any ponderous thoughts (as if straight disco music ever had any), the production team of Oscar Gaeten and Ralph Falcon--the funky dogs themselves--drop new singer Tamara into the mix with a sly wink and nudge. With a slight nod to the Dogs' past work (especially "Fired Up!" and "The Way"), the new crew transforms Star into the ultimate disco party for the end of the century.

And once you get past the repetitiveness of it all (as if straight disco music ever was anything but), Star is one hell of a fiesta. The bass bounces, the melody pounces, and the grooves seesaw back and forth on the beats. Tamara is a dance-floor wailer in the classic tradition, anonymous in both style and substance, but completely suited for the music. She follows the Murk Boys' (Gaeten and Falcon's allied moniker) rhythms as they careen from one side of the floor to the other, and she does it with zest.

But perhaps Star's greatest achievement is making disco sound fresh and vital again. Lately, decent dance singles have celebrated and reveled in the sunshine clubbing of the '90s with a sassy glow, but very few albums have actually sustained the bpms beyond the initial rush. Star blasts off with the rejoicing "Body" and rarely lets up (though the end does sag a bit). For about forty minutes it's a grand tour of dance music and the clubs to where it's retreated over the past decade. Its final message: Disco was never abandoned, it only got funkier.

--Michael Gallucci

Damnations TX
Half Mad Moon
(Sire/Watermelon)

If you have a keen interest in music, you probably have read a lot of good things about a band you never heard of called Damnations TX, whose album is one of the most long-awaited debuts in memory.

Believe it all. This band has what it takes. Whether it's "today Austin, tomorrow the world" is questionable. From a musical standpoint, however, these three transplanted Texans are everything their fierce cult following has said they are for the last three years.

What Damnations TX isn't, contrary to what you might have read, is a country band. It shouldn't even be called alt-country (whatever the hell that is). Damnations TX is a rock band that's country-influenced--sort of like the Outlaws in the 1970s--and uses a lot of acoustic instruments played by multifaceted Shreveport, Louisiana native Rob Bernard. How should Damnations TX be described succinctly? Imagine a 1960s garage band with better--considerably better--instrumental skills.

The prime movers, sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly, were brought up on early-1980s post-punk bands, notably X. Their harmonies have drawn comparisons to the Louvin Brothers, and that's not bad. If the Dixie Chicks rocked, they'd be Boone and Kelly.

Half Mad Moon has no weak cuts on it, and this is no one-trick pony. Some songs rock. Some jangle. Some wail. They all pack heat. This album is hard to categorize, but listen to it and you can see where the band's audience is going to be. Fans of rockabilly, folk rock, X, Elvis Costello, the Blasters, and that catchall genre alt-country should take to this outfit like Kenneth Starr to a rumor.

By the way, Boone and Kelly, natives of the tiny burg of Scoharie, New York, are full sisters. Kelly took mom's maiden name for professional use. Wonder why.

--Byrne

Goldie
Ring of Saturn
(FFRR)

Drum 'n' bass pioneer Goldie slammed into a creative brick wall last year. His previous album, 1995's stunning Timeless, more or less defined the genre, uprooting its jungle base and frantically pumping up the staccato beats into a magnificent aural sculpture. Saturnz Return, the two-disc follow-up, was a bloated yawnfest; it reserved one disc for an hour-long rumination on the author's time and place in the world, while the other disc was crammed with superfluous hip-hop and alt-rock cameos.

Maybe hoping to rectify that wrong (or maybe it's just the hollow holdover recording it appears to be), Goldie's new ten-song EP, Ring of Saturn, takes a new, and sometimes different, look at last year's musical debacle. Employing a small crew of prominent remixers, Goldie gathers a handful of tracks from Saturnz Return and twists, bends, and shapes them into brand-new structures. But as with trying to turn a rotting corpse into a fashion model, Goldie's options are limited. He can dress these tunes up, but he still can't take them anywhere.

The biggest flaw in Ring of Saturn's logic and execution is the assumption that Goldie's fragmented electronic burps will benefit from becoming even more disoriented. The drum 'n' bass beats were pretty mixed up in the first place; these sonic facelifts merely rearrange the pieces. They can be occasionally transfixing, poking away at the heart of the work until something hits. But even Saturnz Return wasn't this desperate in its performance.

While most of the tracks here are pointless (what's with the three versions of Bobby Caldwell's lite R&B Top Tenner from two decades ago, "What You Won't Do for Love," anyway?), the "Vocal Mix" of "Mother VIP" is somewhat of a revelation. It takes the hour-long suite from Saturnz Return and reshapes it into a more cohesive statement. The personal hug that Goldie originally attempted finally comes through in its edited form. And the "Grooverider Remix" of "Temper, Temper" (with Oasis's Noel Gallagher on guitar) tears through the song's core with renewed vitality. The rest of it is just Goldie running around in circles.

--Gallucci

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