JONI MITCHELL: Night Ride Home (Geffen)
CLAUDIA BRUCKEN: Love And A Million Other Things (Island)
HANK WILLIAMS: The Original Singles Collection (Polydor)
CHRIS REA: Auberge (eastwest)
DINOSAUR JR: Green Mind (Blanco y Negro)
While artists working in areas other than popular music habitually improve with age, rock stars have proved notoriously susceptible to burn-out. Wealth and middle age are clearly not conducive to increased work-rate, while we should not forget that a lot of them were remarkably talent-free to begin with.
Not Joni Mitchell though, who is back after some uncertain years with NIGHT RIDE HOME, a disc which finds its author looking both backwards and forwards as she boldly addresses the problematical condition of maturity. The tone is immediately set with the title song, a 4th of July celebration in which present pleasure is carefully set against implied regret.
"I must have a constant dissonance, even in my sunny chords, even in my minors," Mitchell has explained. Her acoustic guitar is always well to the fore here, picking out the contours of her off-centre songs in strange, glittering tunings.
Some are more explicit than others. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a musical reworking of Yeats' The Second Coming, doesn't begin to approximate the predestined menace of the original, despite obscure hints about the Gulf War.
More effective is Cherokee Louise, where the oblique flashes of Mitchell's narrative are counterpoised by Wayne Shorter's saxophone. Best of all are Come In From The Cold and Two Grey Rooms, where Mitchell finds irresistibly bittersweet music against which to replay portions of a restless life. This is one of the three or four best albums she's ever made.
Taking her cue from Kraftwerk, Von Karajan and the Mark 1 Propaganda which she used to front, Claudia Brucken is back to reaffirm that technopop needn't be a cryogenically-frozen wasteland. With sympathetic assistance from producer Pascal Gabriel, she has turned LOVE: AND A MILLION OTHER THINGS into a carefully-monitored emotional laboratory.
The tracks, with their discreetly-pumping heartbeats of rhythm and ice-blue arrangements, perfectly suit the extremities of Brucken's voice. In the current single, Kiss Like Ether, she sounds mildly but euphorically sedated.
The House-ish swagger of Absolute givers her space to be strident and demands to be played loud, but she brings a fraught, supplicating quality to the epic romance of Unforgiveable. Beneath that glacial surface there's a layer of Cointreau.
Before country music was regurgitated by the pop business as MOR with a hat on, there was Hank Williams.
Hank died aged 29 on New Year's Day, 1953, and his recording career had spanned only six years.
But as Polydor's ORIGINAL SINGLES COLLECTION demonstrates, these were pretty unusual years.
The three-CD compilation has been assembled with the assistance of Nashville's Country Music Foundation, and it comes with an informative booklet full of vintage photos (drunk Hank, superstar Hank, nearly-dead Hank).
As compiler/producer Colin Escott's essay says, "There are simply very few Hank Williams records that can be isolated as contrived, hokey, lackluster, or below the remarkable standards that he set for himself."
Over the brusque hillbilly-chug of his guitar, Hank addressed faith, love, fear and death with a raw sincerity that makes you wonder how he knew.
There are 84 tracks here, including Jambalaya, Honky Tonkin', Lonesome Whistle, Lost Highway and I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, and even through the grim sound quality of the earliest recordings, you can still hear the strange aura which has guaranteed Williams' legend.
Having survived his periods of career-trauma, Chris Rea has become the hippy who got away. He's the man who did it his way, and stuck doggedly to his R&B and rock roots. AUBERGE says it all - Rea has made it from Middlesbrough to a hideaway in the French countryside.
You can see why this stuff sells. Rea has a rough, warm voice, his slide guitar playing superficially recalls Ry Cooder and Lowell George, and he knocks out soothing melodies like other people lick stamps.
Song titles like Set Me Free, Gone Fishing and Looking For Summer are accurate guides to their contents, while veteran opponents of the Establishment will warm to Rea's assertion that You're Not A Number.
There's a different kind of nostalgia from Dinosaur Jr., alias J Mascis, who appears hung up on Punk and warped by years in the wilderness. Dinosaur's Brillo-pad guitars, no-brakes performances and terrible whining voice suggest someone wreaking vengeance after years in a correctional facility.
Laughably, they've put out The Wagon as a single, and its buzz-saw thrash and pea-brained harmonies guarantee zero air-play. There is a slow one, though, a fragile acoustic thing called Flying Cloud. It's a heroic effort in the face of overwhelming odds.
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