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CD Reviews 

Various Artists
The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family
(Dualtone)

This collection of Carter Family songs opens with a fine take on "Worried Man Blues" by George Jones. If anyone understands the chorus, it's Jones, whose voice continues to mature and gain nuance. It's followed by Sheryl Crow's version of "No Depression in Heaven," which suggests that she ought to stop playing coy and finally become a country singer once and for all. The album is produced by John Carter Cash, and Crow is the biggest surprise in the choice of artists, but it pays off because the song sounds more her than songs about following the sun when she's 40.

There's no sense, though, that Cash is looking to startle. In fact, the album feels like a family affair, with kindred spirits like Willie Nelson, John Prine and Emmylou Harris contributing songs as well. Norman and Nancy Blake, the Del McCoury Band and Shawn Colvin with Earl and Randy Scruggs add bluegrass notes, but they also add to the family feeling as Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs play on others' tracks as well.

Roseanne Cash's lovely "The Winding Stream" reminds you she put a career on hold to take care of her parents. The songs by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash must be their last recordings, and they're heartbreaking. Their voices are sadly fragile, and their deaths make the lyrics all the more poignant. Johnny's "Engine One-Forty-Three" is his version of going out with his boots on, singing about the deathbed salvation of an engineer caught in a train wreck. June's voice is almost unrecognizable, but she still sings, "I'll never cease praying for you," like it's the most loving thing she could say. -- Alex Rawls

David Mead
Indiana
(Nettwerk)

Accused of sounding like a girl on the title track of his new CD, Indiana, David Mead's answer is to buy the man a drink. What else could he do? He could have slapped him, but that wouldn't have improved things much.

Let's face it: his voice is pretty. No way around it, but it is his voice and his melodies that will have you stealing this CD online and burning it for friends. For shame. Go buy it. Mead paints charming pictures of his travels throughout the country while reflecting on past loves and losses. It is pensive in nature, but not sad. Contemplative, but not brooding.

The compositions are well crafted. Melodies like the one in "Bucket of Girls" firmly carry the songs, with cellos and sparse piano adding touches of emotion in all the right places. Mead romanticizes the life of an old cowboy in the campy and good-natured "New Mexico," capturing the moment in a clippity-clop, country-esque groove.

His version of "Human Nature" is so well arranged you'll have to listen twice to realize it's a Michael Jackson cover. It's tricky for an artist to take someone else's song, particularly someone as distinctive as Jackson, and make the song his or her own. In Mead's case, he finds new meaning in the words, producing a more heartfelt rendition.

Indiana is a road trip, but not the drunken kind you take to Florida with visions of Spring Break on your mind. It's a journey from one life to another, one love to another, using the experiences as a road map to the next destination. -- Skeet Hanks

Los Lobos
The Ride
(Mammoth/Hollywood)

For whatever reason, critics seem compelled to compartmentalize bands like Los Lobos into convenient career phases. For "just another band from East L.A.," there's the pre-La Bamba critical phase, the post-La Bamba phase, the collaborations with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the post-collaboration phase, and so on. But this overlooks the obvious: Los Lobos follows their musical muse, and that means accepting them for whatever direction they take. That some find their middle-age albums a bit too stodgy and not as daring as before misses the point.

And as daring as The Ride might have been set up -- and fails to be -- it still shows Los Lobos doing what feels natural. In this case, it's working with artists who have inspired them or maybe whom they've inspired over the years. The roll call is as impressive and eclectic as Los Lobos' own mellifluous interpretation of roots music, including Dave Alvin, Tom Waits, Martha Gonzalez and Ruben Blades. Even more curious is the desire to recast a few Los Lobos tunes; Cesar Rosas teams with Bobby Womack to take "Wicked Rain" into jauntier territory before Womack changes gears midway through as the song morphs into an homage to his classic "Across 110th Street." Why? Beats me, except maybe Rosas, like co-founder David Hidalgo, listened to tons of great R&B growing up in the '70s. Los Lobos has been all about influences. Here they're simply showing their homework. True highlights include the fiery Latin opener, "La Venganza de Los Pelados" with Café Tacuba; "Wreck of the Carlos Rey" with Richard Thompson and "Matter of Time" with Elvis Costello (both of which show their proximity to Hidalgo's soulful vocals); and Mavis Staples reworking of "Someday." Fun, if uneven, stuff. -- David Lee Simmons

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