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Dolly Parton

Little Sparrow

[Sugar Hill] ****

Thank gawd Nashville's bigs all but gave up on Dolly Parton. Otherwise, we'd probably never have the best work of her career, magnetized for posterity by the folks at little old Sugar Hill records.

"Little Sparrow" is one jewel in what is billed as a Parton trilogy and comes on the heels of "The Grass Is Blue," an impressive piece of pickin' and high-and-lonesome croonin' that earned her an award or two.

"Little Sparrow" has bluegrass underpinnings and more, from a jaunty take on Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," to the old-timey country sensitivities of Autry Inman's "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby." There's haunting and longing in the epic "Mountain Angel," tradition and promise in "Marry Me" and eerie Celtic mysticism in "Down From Dover." There is a little bit of everything in 14 cuts, especially quality, energy and the age-defying verve of Parton's voice.

The support cast for "Little Sparrow" is nothing if not impressive. To name a few, there's Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss, Barry Bales, Claire Lynch, Maura O'Connell, Rhonda and Darrin Vincent and Jim Mills. Yet they're more than just names on the roster. This is a great piece of musicianship.

- Randy Rodda



Appalachian Blues

[Attic Entertainment] ***

Stella. is a Parton, carving out a respectable career as a country artist in the immense shadow of sister Dolly. Thus, the reason this Stella. is "Parton" company with the last name. Period.

There are sibling resemblances. Both remain true to their Smoky Mountains roots. However, Stella.'s voice and musical approach are more delicate than sis's robust bravado.

"Appalachian Blues" is 10 songs ranging from bluegrass and old-timey, to gospel and traditional country. An able crew of studio musicians, including the Scruggs family, serve up subtle and precise backing to Stella.'s unique vocal interpretations.

The lead song, "Up in the Holler," is clue one that this disc is going to be a little different. This is an ethereal, sweetly somber song that speaks of an undying bond with one's parents. It is also telling of the vocal elasticity of this Parton songbird.

Stella. forges a path through the personal in such songs as "Child of My Body," written for her only child; "I'll Think About Shadows," the daily battle to fend off the demons; and "Songbird's Heart," just saying no to an asphyxiating lover.

Also working well are versions of the much-recorded "Wayfaring Stranger," steering this familiar bloke away from the dirge, and "Satisfied Mind," an entirely satisfying experience.

- Randy Rodda


Rainer Maria

A Better Version of Me

[Polyvinyl] *** 1/2

Caithlin DeMarrais opens the syrup-slow "Seven Sisters" with a blunt declaration: "I wanna see your goodness around me." It's an idealistic line - maybe something the Madison, Wis., trio's namesake, the 19th-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke, might have written. Though DeMarrais starts out sounding as if she wants to find that goodness, her voice acquires a crestfallen cynicism as the song progresses: "Your goodness is coiled like a fist, holed up in the back of the attic, crouched like a cat."

With that kind of imagery, Rainer Maria seems to be trying to bring a bit of grad-school artiness to the heart-on-the-sleeve subgenre known as emo-core. But the lyrics are only one part of its magnetism: The group has translated those occluded sentiments into snarly yet delicately appointed music.

On "A Better Version of Me," its third full-length effort, the trio arrives at a precise musical counterpoint for the emotional excavation under way on just about every track. On the ruminative "Ceremony," it conjures a mood of Sunday-afternoon reflection; on the heavier "Artificial Light," it surrounds DeMarrais' vulnerable voice with guitars that rattle like a door slammed shut in the middle of a heated argument.

- Tom Moon, Knight Ridder


Josh Joplin Group

Useful Music

[Artemis Records] ** 1/2

A few songs into the Josh Joplin Group's "Useful Music" and it dawns on you that the title may not be intended ironically. The good news is that on its strongest cuts the album's unremitting earnestness and belief in its own redemptive power results in stirring, roots-influenced rock. The bad news is that the rest of the album bogs down - lyrically at least - in the kind of politically correct high seriousness that's difficult to take, well, seriously.

While "Useful Music" ranges stylistically from anthem-y rockers ("Matter") to autobiographical ballads ("Dutch Wonderland") to Beck-ish folk-rap ("Superstar"), Joplin seems most at home with the post-alt minstrelry of songs like "Gravity" and "Who's Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?" Between them, the two songs demonstrate what's good and bad about the album: insinuating mid-tempo grooves; tight and understated playing; literary name dropping; cliched allusions to drunken poets or suicides; and references to dreams, dreaming, or dream imagery too numerous to mention. Music aside, it's a lot to ask of any listener more than a few years removed from freshman English.

The album isn't without its high points. "Matter" is - despite its good intentions - forceful, disruptive rock and roll. "I've Changed," especially the bonus track version that ends the CD, is, with its plaintive vocal and ringing guitar break, beautifully executed pop. But even what's good about "Useful Music" tends to be undermined by its literary pretensions. It would be so much easier to like a song like, say, "Human" if we weren't required to take seriously a lyric like "until one day the sky fell in and freedom lost control." It's not awful, just heavy handed, and maybe a draft or two away from being moving or funny or disturbing. In other words, really useful.

- Wendell Wild


Irvin Mayfield

How Passion Falls

[Basin Street] *** 1/2

You know the drill by now: young musicians - especially trumpet players - come up from New Orleans practically wearing Ellis Marsalis U. sweat shirts. They can be pretentious as hell and addicted to virtually the same harmonies and dissonances as Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo etc. But while they may seem dreary to contemplate, they can play.

Case in point: 22-year old trumpet player Irvin Mayfield in this pretentious tribute to love and literature with a typically Marsalisian not-quite-GQ cover photo. As a suite of music with movements devoted to Adam and Eve, Othello and Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet and David and Bathsheba, it's not quite destined for immortality alongside the works of Richard Strauss and Duke Ellington. But there's some terrific playing on it. The Mayfield-Donald Harrison interplay on "David and Bathsheba" is somewhere in between raw Ornette Coleman and New Orleans traditionalism and is as powerful as anything to come from one of these unofficial Marsalises in years. And it all ends with "The Reality," a walking blues that Mayfield plays with a fraction of his musical Uncle Wynton's virtuosity but a feeling that's, if anything, more convincing than Marsalis sometimes is.

Listen to this guy. The most apt judgment would be to repeat Miles Davis' legendary mutter into his cognac the first time he heard Charles Lloyd's quartet (when Lloyd was at the height of his tie-dyed popularity): a grunt, a nod of approval and then "the cat can play."

- Jeff Simon

Buffalo Wax


Plastic Queen

Remember the good old days of rock when music was an all-out blitz of energy and showmanship? Stephen Perry does. The songwriter and guitarist of the rock quartet Veil, Perry is a throwback to the time rock was big, bold and fun.

The quartet has been tweaking its sound and comes up here with stripped down arrangements and an aggressive style for its second release, "Plastic Queen." Johnnie Cambridge continues to evolve as a singer, adjusting vocally to the raw and forceful tone set from the title track opening the EP. Perry alternately slashes and chugs on his guitar, moving "Plastic Queen" along at a brisk pace held steady by drummer Bill Moore and bassist Greg Fink. The fiery spirit continues in the bold "Indecision" and is toned down for the brooding "Ballad of Jack." A funky bass line sets the mood for "Victim," a song that's a lot more fun than its dark nature would lead you to believe. "Plastic Queen" can be heard tonight in the Continental.

- Toni Ruberto

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