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RECORD RACK

'What I Know' by Tom Rush

Also reviewed: 'Never Going Back' by Shemekia Copeland; 'Wrath' by Lamb of God; 'Heroes' by War Child.

February 24, 2009|Randy Lewis, Margaret Wappler, August Brown, Chris Barton

Tom Rush

"What I Know"

Appleseed

***

Tom Rush helped launch the singer-songwriter era with his '60s recordings and coffeehouse performances, which were built on stylish guitar work and probing songs that ferreted into the many facets of human experience. He hasn't recorded a studio album in more than 30 years, but you'd never guess he'd been away so long, from the lithe spirit in his voice on these 15 tracks.

The album's title suggests a summation of sorts, and the experience and wisdom accrued with age do figure prominently. But Rush is less about expounding universal truths than celebrating the individual moments that make life worth living.

The title track, one of five Rush compositions, revisits the idea Sam Cooke outlined in "Wonderful World" with an infectious bounce all its own. Nanci Griffith helps out on his retelling of the folk ballad "Casey Jones"; Emmylou Harris adds her incomparable harmonizing to Steven Bruton's sweetly reflective "Too Many Memories"; and Bonnie Bramlett lends her soulful voice to Rush's frisky "Hot Tonight."

At 68, Rush shows no sign of trying to push boundaries. Rather, he's happy to sing about what matters to him and put the welcome mat out for anyone who cares to listen in.

-- Randy Lewis

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War Child's gimmick works

War Child

"Heroes"

Astralwerks

***

Compilations don't pack the conceptual punch of a traditional album created around a set of themes, but they can impress with a gimmick, and War Child's got a great one. Have a legendary musician select a song from his or her catalog and handpick a younger artist to cover it. Then donate a portion of the proceeds to War Child, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance to children in devastated regions.

Most of the 16 tracks on "Heroes" don't disappoint, but there are a few that should've stayed on the drawing board. The Hold Steady covering Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" would be novel if Craig Finn hadn't spent the last several years limning the Boss' style. Same for the Kooks' narrow homage to the Kinks.

Sometimes, though, close calls yield fresh beauty: Elbow has surely worn out the grooves on U2's early albums, but the band's version of "Running to Stand Still" explores different corners of the melody, turning up new depth and vision.

Other successful alliances include Hot Chip's sleekly funky rendition of Joy Division's "Transmission" and Roxy Music's "Do the Strand," which the Scissor Sisters inject with club sparkle. Duffy leaves her soulful imprint on Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," and the title track from David Bowie finds a good spiritual home with TV on the Radio.

The New York band nails the balance of reverence and reinvention.

-- Margaret Wappler

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Swagger meets righteous evil

Lamb of God

"Wrath"

Epic

** 1/2

Metal bands with populist ambitions always have to make a deal with the devil: Too many hooks and you end up like Poison, but too much grind resigns you to an audience that enjoys doodling pentagrams in their notebooks during study hall. So the surprise ascent of bands like Lamb of God, which sneaks genuine trash metal onto the Billboard charts, speaks to an abiding need for something a hair scarier than Daughtry on rock radio.

On its new album, "Wrath," the Virginia band roots its best songs in a Motorhead swagger that makes the growly moments stickier and gives the stadium-sized choruses a hint of righteous evil. Kickoff single "Set to Fail" has a snakebitten chorus that feels destined for America's more insalubrious stripper poles (and that's a compliment), but the band takes pains to follow it up with the orthodox calisthenics of "Contractor," probably the most vicious and evocative tune attacking military outsourcing to date.

The gang chorus of "Broken Hands" retains the instrumental pyrotechnics yet feels summer festival ready, and the laser-sharp pummel of "Everything to Nothing" focuses aggression into urgent riffery.

"Wrath" owes huge debts to such hallowed metal predecessors as Metallica's "Master of Puppets," but anybody who can make this instrumental firebombing play well in an arena is doing the dark lord proud.

-- August Brown

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Booming voice in a gritty effort

Shemekia Copeland

"Never Going Back"

Telarc

***

After solid if not entirely unexpected album collaborations with Dr. John and Stax Records' Steve Cropper, Shemekia Copeland is shaking things up with her fifth release, a gritty, socially conscious effort that gives her Grand Canyon-filling voice something new to say.

Produced by Oliver Wood from the blues-folk duo the Wood Brothers (whose other half is Chris Wood, from the trio Medeski Martin and Wood), "Never Going Back" opens with the Copeland co-written "Sounds Like the Devil," which sets the tone with barbs like "I ain't got healthcare . . . I can't even afford to die."

Elsewhere Chris Wood's roomy upright bass teams with John Medeski's B3 to lend an intimate coffeehouse vibe to Copeland's breathy take on Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," but it's on the noirish epic "Never Going Back to Memphis" where Copeland digs the deepest. Spiked with an unhinged solo from frequent Tom Waits guitarist Marc Ribot, Copeland's voice curls around richly murderous details like "he kept a .45 in a Crown Royal bag."

Copeland can still shake the rafters when she wants to, but the further she gets from where she's already been, the more rewarding this album is to follow.

-- Chris Barton

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