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Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

World Wide Rebel Songs

[New West]

3 stars (out of 4)

Erstwhile Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello's second album as doppelganger the Nightwatchman marks the full flourishing of ideas only hinted at on the 2008 solo debut "Fabled City."

Which is not to suggest that Morello is truly breaking new ground here. That was never the idea with the Nightwatchman, the creation of which seems to have been aimed at satisfying the renowned guitarist's desire to get his Springsteen and Billy Bragg on.

"World Wide Rebel Songs" marks an improvement over its predecessor through the implementation of a full, mostly electric band, which fleshes out material that's similar to the stuff Morello recorded mostly on his own the first time around.

As ever, Morello's greatest motivator is a militant left-leaning disgust with the workings of modern man. Morello is a graduate of Harvard University, after all -- yes, you guessed it, he majored in political science -- and has been equally prolific as both political activist and musician since emerging with Rage in the early 1990s. His anger is always tempered by an informed intelligence, and "Rebel Songs" benefits from this, its often folk-based song structures granted added heft by Morello's well-earned radical intellectual worldview.

The best songs here blend visceral lyrical theses -- set in locales as diverse as Tijuana, Kenya, Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. textile mills -- with fully fleshed arrangements. "It Begins Tonight" muscles its way into the room on the strength of a Rage Against the Machine-style groove. "Save the Hammer For the Man" is folk-based -- think Steve Earle meeting solo Jakob Dylan -- and finds Morello trading verses and guitar lines with guest Ben Harper. "Stray Bullets" and the title song take a knee before the legacy of the late Joe Strummer's Clash-era and solo work, and both are effective.

The genesis of Morello's Nightwatchman persona can be traced back to Rage Against the Machine's cover of Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and Morello's subsequent live performances of the song with its writer. As a singer, Morello is no threat to Springsteen, but his mostly baritone-range exhortations are well-suited to getting the point across in these simple but powerful songs.

Morello may always be a better guitarist than he is singer/songwriter, but these tough songs for tough songs smack of passion, compassion and sincerity.

-- Jeff Miers



Connie Smith

Long Line Of Heartaches

[Sugar Hill]

3 1/2 stars

Of all the great country music queens to rise in the 1960s, Connie Smith may have the lowest public profile. Partly that's because in the early 1970s, as the world at large learned of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, Smith retreated from touring to focus on raising her family and on recording albums that expressed her religious convictions.

But hard-core country fans always have heralded Smith as one of the great voices of her generation. So when Smith's new album "Long Line Of Heartaches" opens with a steel guitar -- the instrument most closely identified with her best-loved recordings -- and with the words "Here we go again," her legion of fans across the country will rejoice.

On her first album in 13 years, and only her second since 1978, Smith provides even more reason to celebrate: Unlike her self-titled 1998 album, in which Smith flirted with contemporary country sounds, this time the 70-year-old singer concentrates solely on original songs featuring classic country sounds and themes.

"Ain't You Even Gonna Cry," set mostly to a tenderly picked acoustic guitar and the moans of a steel guitar, illustrates why Smith's voice is such a revered instrument. With emotional restraint and careful diction, she delves into the pain of the moment when two lovers realize this is the moment one of them is walking away for good.

From the torch ballad "I'm Not Blue" to the dance-floor shuffle of "Anymore," "Long Line Of Heartaches" serves as a welcome reminder of why Smith ranks among country music's most beloved artists.

-- Michael McCall, Associated Press



Emmy the Great


[Close Harbor]

3 stars

Emmy the Great's sophomore album, "Virtue," shows the continuing expansion of Emma-Lee Moss' songwriting abilities. Her tender approach and frisky wordplay make her easy on the ears.

Moss and her backing band begin with "Dinosaur Sex," a song two minutes too long but a fun track nonetheless. It's dealing with either fossil fuels and the demise of Western civilization, or a failed relationship. You'll have to be the judge, because Moss is frequently coy with the plot lines to her songs. "A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep" delves into the world of the bored housewife, desperately seeking emotional vigor in a world hamstrung by domesticity. Moss approaches the subject with thoughtful aplomb as she sings, "Now I have to find a dress/ Have to buy a dress/ Have to sew it 'til the pieces mesh."

"Cassandra" is one of the album's best songs, beginning with just a smattering of guitar and eschewing the lead-vocal dominance of most of the other tracks that often relegates her backing band to don't-play-too-loud status. It's a better blend of skills than all the other tracks.

Yet for all her upside, Moss comes off as a bit of stylistic borrower. There's a little too much Natalie Merchant and Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, in her voice. An occasional recognizable influence is forgivable. But just when you think it's only going to last for a song or two, six songs have gone by and it remains too close for comfort.

To move forward and enjoy Moss on her own merits, the listener must embrace the quick and lilting lyrical approach with open arms and accept the sonic similarity. If that can be done, "Virtue" is a treat.

-- Ron Harris, Associated Press



Sounds Under Radio

Where My Communist Heart Meets My Capitalist Mind


3 stars

Pay no attention to the title of the quartet's sophomore effort. Politics will be the last thing on your mind listening to these 12 tracks, instead you'll be running through a minefield of emotions. Also, don't read too much into the fact that the band hails from Austin, Texas -- a musical hotbed normally associated with a more countrified sound.

Instead, you'll hear great Americanized Brit-rock in songs that are dynamically impressive, mood inducing and can just outright rock. Like the best singers, Lang Freeman uses his voice as the instrument it is, changing a song's tone all on his own. In "The Arsonist," he soars with a falsetto, comes down to earth with a melodic pop tone and then drops into a harsh cry.

"Effigy" teeters near industrial rock and then segues effortlessly into the gorgeous piano-vocal interplay of "Fire Escape." There are delicious deep grooves on "Better Way" -- that is until the bottom drops out and unleashes Freeman's raw cries. Things certainly lighten up on "Sing," a radio friendly, pure pop tune that carries an infectious groove.

The exquisite "All I Wanted," the song that brought the band to national attention after its use in "The Vampire Diaries," is a heartbreaker that seeps into your pores. That ability to make listeners not just hear, but feel the music, is Sounds Under Radio's greatest achievement.

-- Toni Ruberto

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