Gillian Welch: Am I Bluegrass?

A black Mercedes S.U.V. recently whizzed past me with its stereo blasting, of all things, the bluegrass song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Such is the bizarre reach of the surprise platinum-selling soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? –this century’s musical-reeducation equivalent of The Blues Brothers soundtrack.

Just as The Blues Brothers revived original soul artists, hopefully O Brother will lead some ears to Gillian Welch, the previously obscure neo-traditionalist singer-songwriter who both helped produce the disc and shared lead vocals (with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris) on two of its most stirring tracks, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Ms. Welch, 33, and her modestly unbilled collaborator of 10 years, David Rawlings, recently played Town Hall after having primed a Gotham fan base with two brief, memorable performances: a raw, electric version of “Idiot Wind” at The New Yorker ‘s Bob Dylan birthday bash and, at the O Brother concert at Carnegie Hall, a haunting acoustic pseudo-oldie, “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll.” The latter is a highlight from their third, beautifully harmonious effort, Time (The Revelator) , on Ms. Welch’s new private label, Acony (which, following the corporate consolidation of her former label, Almo, is also rereleasing her two previous efforts, both produced by T-Bone Burnett, who discovered the musicians). Time was recorded in Elvis Presley’s original RCA studio in Nashville, their adopted home base. The studio imparts a full-bodied acoustic shimmer to the duo that is positively haunting. Even the album’s photo of Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings looks vintage.

Though Ms. Welch grew up in L.A. (her parents scored The Carol Burnett Sho w), she sounds sprung from an Appalachian creek, with a wise, soulful voice and a Dylanesque ability to vacillate between direct and allusive lyricism. The pining, spine-tingling lullaby “Dear Someone” and the gospelish, pearly-gates-invoking “Red Clay Halo” are so perfectly pitched, they sound like they date back to the Bristol Sessions. But “My First Lover” rocks out with a stomping banjo riff and a steamy, raw honesty: “He was always talking, trying to bring me down / But I was not waiting for a white wedding gown / From my first lover.” And the title track, about reparations of the heart and mind–and probably the first bluegrass song to contain the line “Going back to Cali”–ends with an acoustic guitar jam worthy of Led Zep Unplugged. More ambitious efforts–like the bisected pairing “April the 14th, Part I” and “Ruination Day, Part II,” which link historical and personal tragedies (Lincoln’s assassination, the sinking of the Titanic and an aspiring band with an ill-fated gig)–aren’t as instantly accessible, but have a deeper payoff. The 15-minute finale, “I Dream a Highway,” draws the listener into a meditative stream of yearning and heartache one might have thought impossible in the era of Frappuccinos and instant messaging. O sister, thou hast arrived.

–David Handelman

Sam Phillips: Fan -f*#!ing-tastic

Life is usually best explained in retrospect. Distance aids perspective and cools the distorting heat of the moment.

So God bless Sam Phillips for making a beautiful little album that’s very much in the present. Fan Dance (Nonesuch) is short–barely over 30 minutes–and spare, but every word and note work at evoking the weird combination of dread and possibility that life holds right now.

Ms. Phillips has been quoted as saying that she spent the years leading up to Fan Dance thinking about failure, especially that of her 1996 album, Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop!) , which was supposed to build on the success of her excellent 1994 album, Martinis & Bikinis . The fruit of her meditation comes just as we are putting the failure of the Clinton years behind us. We were supposed to enter the 21st century richer and happier, a more fulfilled people, but the only thing that arrived as promised was the future, and we have no choice but to deal with it. Life may be longer thanks to science, but it means living in a world that’s already recycled the last 50 years of popular culture.

When Ms. Phillips sings, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be / I can only picture the disappearing world when you touch me” on “Taking Pictures,” she could very well be singing about our first year under George W. Bush. Fan Dance seems to be about finding the strength to push on into the future, even if the progress is incremental. “I don’t mind if I am getting nowhere / Circling the seed of light / I’ve been greedy for some destination / I can’t get to where are you?” she sings on “Five Colors,” one of the album’s most beautiful songs. Ms. Phillips began her career as a Christian singer, but here she’s preaching a secular faith. At the end of the verse, she declares: “I tried but can’t find refuge in the angle / I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”

All but one of the musicians on Fan Dance have worked with Ms. Phillips before, as has the producer, husband T-Bone Burnett. They serve her well, especially Jersey-boy guitarist Marc Ribot. Lyrics as strong as Ms. Phillips’ deserve to be heard, as does her distinctive voice (think latter-day Marianne Faithful, with only trace levels of nicotine-stained Weltschmerz ), and Mr. Burnett sees to that. The music is austere and slightly off-kilter, in the vein of Waits and Weill. It often seems to waft around her voice like a specter, as Mr. Ribot’s guitar and Van Dyke Parks’ harpsichord do on “Taking Pictures.” On “Five Colors,” a ghostly synth line slowly rises to join Ms. Phillips, along with Carla Azar on traps and Gillian Welch on bass and vocals.

Ms. Phillips makes a couple of references to “a new world.” On “Love Is Everywhere I Go,” she channels her hero, John Lennon, and offers herself up as hope for the rest of us, singing that she’s found a place where “There is no end to the good.” The title track evokes the mystery and menace of China–a country that has certainly been on our radar since W. took office–with hand drums and banjo while Ms. Phillips sings: “I’ll be in your dark streets / To keep the lantern burning / Until your new world begins.”

– Frank DiGiacomo

Neil Diamond: The Spaz Singer

Is Neil Diamond simply too cruddy to revive? Three Chord Opera (Columbia), his first pop album in 10 years, is so utterly lacking in groove, thought, taste and originality that it makes you wonder what Behind the Music has wrought.

The last decade in our comeback culture has seen a growing appreciation of the craftsmen (and -women) who kept Tin Pan Alley alive on AM radio through the 60′s and 70′s–if only for a night at “The Loser’s Lounge.” When no less trivial a songster than Mama Cass retainee Margo Guryan has her work reissued and celebrated as the flower of a studio system as fertile (and crass) as Hollywood’s 30 years before, it’s clear that the 60-year-old Mr. Diamond is next in line for beatification. The fans have already started crawling out of their closets.

They may not want to crawl too far. I defy even the members of tribute band Super Diamond to keep from blushing when their idol growls, “We’re gonna drive to the edge of the night” over a secondhand Beck beat in “Baby Let’s Drive” (this from a man who told The Times , “The generation of today does not consider me a part of the kitsch genre”) . The song is so derivative, so beyond the so-bad-it’s-good limit, cringing is too mild a response. And even if the fake gospel of “Leave a Little Room for God” recalls the frisson -inducing excess of Mr. Diamond’s 1969 “Brother Love’s TravelingSalvation Show,” it’s sobering to think that a middle-aged man looked deep within in order to come up with: “As you’re goin’ through the day / Leave a little room for God / You know he won’t get in your way.”

Until now, Mr. Diamond has been known for his gift for writing verses as catchy as the choruses they introduce (“Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cherry, Cherry”), as well as the breezy spirit of his lyrics and his sexy Brooklyn baritone. But only the voice remains the same. His flashes of brilliance–the touching-me-touching-you business, the peppy swell of the anthems, the cloying pathos of the ballads–will survive, but Three Chord Opera makes it clear that they’ll have to do it despite him.

– Lorin Stein

Thalia Zedek: Love Stinks

On first listen, Been Here and Gone (Matador), the new solo album by former Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek, is hard to take. On second and third listen, too. Her voice can be gruff, and the music tends to be lavishly dirgelike on the face of it–not what you would call uplifting. But if you give it time, Been Here and Gone will get its claws in you. It’s a beautiful album, dark and big-hearted, honest and strangely delicate, like a stiletto.

The road Ms. Zedek took to get to this point has been hard, but worth it–at least for us. It’s jarring to think that she’s been at it for the last 20 years, if only because the early 80′s don’t seem so long ago. After fronting Live Skull, one of the also-rans of the Lower East Side noise-rock scene, she moved to Boston and formed Come with guitarist Chris Brokaw. Come blew the doors off most of its peers and earned a rep for its blistering live shows. Ms. Zedek’s voice put the “gutter” in “guttural,” while Mr. Brokaw’s six strings drew blood. But that was the early 90′s, when American alt-rock was in full flower. Come soldiered on, only to officially disband earlier this year. No bang, no whimper.

With Been Here and Gone , Ms. Zedek has channeled her ferocity into something more affecting and graceful. The album starts off grim but ends up as one of the most starkly romantic recordings since Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours . Ms. Zedek works through the whole Love + Sex = Pain equation and comes out on the other side, exuding a sense of redemption. Maturity has its perks.

Redemption is nice and all, but the kick here is hearing her kiss off a host of somebodies in the most baroque ways possible. Strings help, as do great piano-playing and supple drumming, but it’s Mr. Brokaw’s electric- and slide-guitar work that illuminates songs like “Desanctified (Full Circle)” and “Temporary Guest” the most, helping Ms. Zedek aim her gorgeous, mournful voice at the ghosts in her recent past. It can get a little sad, especially on the three cover tunes: Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” Luiz Bonfá’s “Manha de Carnaval” and Gary Gogel’s “1926.” But if it weren’t sad, it wouldn’t be true. And Been Here and Gone is true to the end.

– Jay Stowe