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New Country Roads Worth Exploring

April 21, 1996|Robert Hilburn

For all the massive sales punch of country music in the '90s, there haven't been many great albums out of Nashville. But there are two in this edition of Calendar's guide to keeping up with what's exciting in pop on an album budget of $50 a month. Steve Earle and Gillian Welch, however, aren't pure country artists--they draw upon folk and rock in ways that make country radio programmers suspicious. Don't make the same mistake.


Steve Earle, "I Feel Alright," E-Squared/Warner Bros. Back in peak form, Earle shows again why he is the '90s descendant of the Willie and Waylon '70s outlaw movement. There are several masterful moments in these tales of struggle and survival, but none hits harder than "Valentine's Day" (a heart-stirring statement of affection) or "South Nashville Blues" (a heart-stopping recognition of unchecked desperation).

The Fugees, "The Score," Ruffhouse/Columbia. This East Coast hip-hop trio didn't start out showing the promise of the debuts by Arrested Development, De La Soul or the other inventive, ambitious groups that appeared to be the creative future of mainstream rap. But it takes the leadership reins with this second album. Mixing classic musical strains, sly humor and insightful commentary, the Fugees craft inner-city portraits that are fresh, illuminating and assured.

Pulp, "Different Class," Island. Once you've bought Oasis, this should be your next stop in exploring the hot new British bands. Listening to Jarvis Cocker and his mates, you'll hear echoes of everything from the grand imagination of David Bowie to the musical melodrama of Phil Spector. As the album title suggests, most of the songs are about social outsiders examining British life with insight and wit. Unusually stylish.


Various artists, "Dead Man Walking: The Score," Columbia. What are the odds of two great albums coming from the same film project? The first "Dead Man Walking" collection featured songs--by Bruce Springsteen, Earle and others--that were "inspired by" the film but weren't, for the most part, actually in it. This equally essential and uplifting album is the film's score, which was composed and compiled by David Robbins. It includes extended versions of the two haunting Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-Eddie Vedder collaborations from the first album.

Golden Smog, "Down by the Old Mainstream," Rykodisc. If it weren't for Gram Parsons' albums in the '60s and early '70s, there wouldn't have been a Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt or any other '90s country-rock expeditions. Even though this album is a side project featuring some of the leading lights from those contemporary bands, it's easy to imagine Parsons enjoying it more than some of the formal works by those groups. There's a soulful, engaging feeling throughout. Listen closely to "Glad & Sorry" and see if it doesn't sound like Parsons himself sitting in on the session.

Gillian Welch, "Revival," Almo Sounds. Imagine Emmylou Harris singing an old Dolly Parton song, such as "Coat of Many Colors," and you'll get an idea of the vocal purity and songwriting deftness of this excellent young Nashville-based arrival. Harris recorded Welch's "Orphan Girl" on her last album and she ought to record Welch's "Barroom Girls" for her next one. A special artist.

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