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  Listen Up! 9/22/03 Listen Up!

Monday, Sept. 22

The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Real World Records. How can you spend fifty or better years singing Gospel music without ever releasing a Christmas record before? Better late than never, I always say, and better great than either. This is great. I have modest reservations about the tastes of white hipsters being served by old African-American Gospel singers, but heck, I can’t deny the pleasures I’m taking from this. Clarence Fountain is one of the great American vocalists, and the harmonies are impeccable, the arrangements inspired. I’m thinking this is THE Christmas record to buy this year.

Emmylou Harris, “Stumble Into Grace,” Nonesuch Records. Upon first listen, I get a sense of grace, dignity, stateliness. Emmylou is letting these songs unfold, slowly, gently. She’s giving them plenty of passion, too. I like the sound of this record more than the last couple. The shimmers of Daniel Lanois are still there, but the vocals are front and center more than they have been in a while. I certainly miss the old vivacity of the first 20 years of her career, but I’m happy with the directions she’s going in now. Her vocal range isn’t what it once was, so it makes sense for her to write her own material to fit where she can actually hit the notes. There are a lot of talented collaborators – notably Kate and Anna McGarrigle on a couple of tracks – but not a lot of immediately infectious hooks. We’ll see how these songs grow on me, but I’m gonna be happy to give them the chance.

Various Artists, “Remembering Patsy Cline,” MCA Nashville. There are singers, and there are people who stand in front of microphones and make sounds. Patsy Cline was a singer, a magnificent specimen of the species. She had a lot of great songs, and a bunch of lesser ones, but the thing we remember most about her is the direct connection to our emotions she was able to achieve darn near every single time she sang. So, of all today’s female vocalists – and we’ll sidestep the fact that I’m really tired of every tribute to a female singer limiting itself to women – who would you ask to sing some of Cline’s signature material? Natalie Cole, Amy Grant, Michelle Branch, Patty Griffin? Heck, I wouldn’t ask any of these people to sing on a tribute to Debbie Boone! There are two, exactly two, vocalists on here with any degree of personality and emotional resonance, and only a couple more with enough chops to make them sound passable, anyway. Norah Jones handles “Why Can’t He Be You” with all the skills she’s brought to everything you’ve already heard from her. And k.d. lang simply owns “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” a fairly obscure Cline cut. Lang is one of those treasures who started out amazing, and who has only gotten better as she’s slipped out of the public eye. Bottom line is you’ll want these two cuts for sure, and you’ll have to judge whether Diana Krall and Lee Ann Womack’s professionalism makes the whole album worth buying or not.

--Steve Pick

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