It's a big day for country music, funky jazz and (auguring St. Patrick's Day) Celtic rock, too.
COUNTRY COUSIN: I can't identify all that closely with the "Small Town Southern Man" lifestyle that Alan Jackson is espousing in his new album of honky-tonk country "Good Time" (Arista, A-). But there's no denying the power in his delivery (laid-back, yet confident), his playful turns of phrase, and the universal emotions underscoring his good-timey tunes. Check out the role reversal in the waltz time "Right Where I Want You," wherein our boy wishes out loud that his romantic interest was just as smitten as he. The two-step shuffle "1976" evokes his young courtin' days when cars had muscle, fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the narrator was first courting the sweetheart who's still in his life. Technophobes will appreciate "I Still Like Bologna," wherein Jackson scratches his head over the need for computers and mobile phones, while the Jimmy Buffett fan club will connect to his similarly balmy, calypso country "Laid Back in Low Key."
STORM CLOUDS FROM THE NORTH: Now Kathleen Edwards, by contrast, is a bitter pill I can easily swallow. On "Asking for Flowers" (Zoe, A-), this Canadian-born country rock singer is a brutally honest, mostly downbeat storyteller, at times suggesting a female counterpart to Neil Young at his stinging best. She's feeling the draft (or at least, peer pressure) breathing down the necks of two young lovers running away from the "Oil Man's War." And pondering what all the struggle is for in "Asking for Flowers," when that jerk of a guy doesn't appreciate her. I relish Edwards' dry, seemingly autobiographical put-downs of fellow musicians (and maybe herself) in "The Cheapest Key" and "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory" wherein she declares "You're cool and cred like Fogerty, I'm Elvis Presley in the '70s."
PUNCH IT UP: Bluegrass is at the base, but hardly the sum and substance of the debut album from Punch Brothers, "Punch" (Nonesuch, A-) and the newbie from Chatham County Line, "IV" (YepRock, B). Fronted by former Nickel Creek singer/mandolinist Chris Thile with a super set of associates, the tony "Punch" imagines an acoustic string ensemble that's equally conversant in old-timey and classical chamber music! The core of the album is Thile's high-striving, four-movement work "The Blind Leaving the Blind" sparked by the dissolution of his marriage. The work is bleak yet lyrical, and beautifully recorded. Chatham County Line, ironically, seems to be picking up some of the edgy crossover spirit of Nickel Creek. Roots music remains at their core, though they're jumping off into gospel, rock and pop realms, too.
WHEN IRISH EYES ARE FROWNING: A fire-breathing, clench-fisted, rabble-rousing spirit fuels both Celtic traditional music and punk rock. So combining the two styles makes for quite the incendiary device, in the explosive work of the Los Angeles-based band Flogging Molly on "Float" (SideOne Dummy, B) and New York's Black 47 on "Iraq" (United For Opportunity, B+). Both feature Irish front men, and both touch on contemporary concerns, with the latter offering an unrelenting assault on the Iraq war as seen through the eyes of Western troops on the battlefront. I wish the Black 47 gang had managed to work in some Middle Eastern sonic flavor, too. But "Downtown Baghdad Blues" (integrating the traditional Irish tune "The Soldier Boy") and "Stars and Stripes" (oddly jumping off "Sloop John B") are rich examples of cultural co-mingling.
GETTING TO FIRST BASS: Marcus Miller has to be one of the most versatile bass players/composers on earth. He wrote several of Luther Vandross' biggest hits and collaborated with Miles Davis. He's cropped up as sideman on albums with talents like Eric Clapton, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin. Now he's showing all his tasteful sides on "Marcus" (Concord, B+), steering fresh, slip-sliding covers of Tower of Power's "What Is Hip" and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," paying homage to Davis and the jazz life with "Jean Pierre" and showing his pop side in collaborations with singers Lalah Hathaway ("Lost Without You"), Keb' Mo' ("Milky Way") and Corinne Bailey Ray (on the Deniece Williams hit "Free").
MORE TO SCORE: I was half-expecting to get cavities from the original Broadway cast recording of "The Little Mermaid" (Disney, B). But when that officious octopus Ursula is plotting her wicked rise to the throne (and Ariel's downfall) there's actually some sharp wit and bite to the tale. Naturally, all builds on Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman's abbreviated film score ("Under the Sea," "Kiss The Girl") with new, compatible tunes by Menken and Glenn Slater.
One of the true class acts of the independent music scene, the St. Paul, Minn.-based Red House Records has been finding and celebrating subtle, organic singer/songwriters and rootsy Americana musicians for the past 25 years. Now "Our Side of Town" (Red House, A) marks the label's big anniversary with primo samplings from the catalog - by talents you may know like "Prairie" regulars Robin and Linda Williams, Jorma Kaukonen, John Gorka, Jimmy LaFave, Guy Davis and Lucy Kaplansky - and a bunch more you'll be pleased to meet, like The Wailin' Jennys and Storyhill. *