The Flatlanders started in 1971 when Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock lived together in Lubbock, Texas. The one album of folk-influenced country recorded by the trio became legendary as their individual recording careers took off. After years of playing together in different configurations, it made sense to re-form the Flatlanders, and not surprisingly, Wheels of Fortune (New West) sounds like three old friends making music together.
That means a different set of values are at work here. Ego doesn't seem to be much of an issue, so the imbalance in the lead vocals (Gilmore gets most of them) and the songwriting (Hancock writes most of them) aren't issues. It also means the competition to be the newest and hottest thing on the market is shelved, so three older songs including the title song are re-cut because they're good songs and because they've never been recorded in this configuration. The result is as comfortable and intimate as you might expect, but it isn't without a little push. Al Strehli's "Whistle Blues" motors along with a drive and energy you won't find on many back porches.
Don't Look for a Heartache collects the high points of Gilmore's recordings for Hightone Records, most of which date back to the late '80s. At that point, there was some vain hope that Nashville and country music fans might buy Gilmore, so the songs are a little more dressed up than on Wheels of Fortune. It would be inaccurate to call them slick, though, and the production never sells out the songs or Gilmore's otherworldly tenor. Only the absence of "Tonight I Think I'm Going to Go Downtown" keeps the disc from being a greatest-hits collection, and there's no more heartbreaking moment on either disc than when he recalls his lover telling him, "Babe, you're just the wave/ You're not the water."
Cheap Trick, Essential Cheap Trick (Columbia/Legacy) -- If at this point, you need to be sold on Disc One, which consists largely of material from the group's career-defining first five albums, you probably don't like power pop. Disc Two provides a genuine public service, though, because hearing it you realize the reason the songs from In Color and Heaven Tonight are better loved is only because they came first.
Toots and the Maytals, True Love (V2) -- Toots' greatest hits here are re-recorded with guest stars including Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Ryan Adams and Trey Anastasio. There's no questioning the material or Toots -- reggae's Otis Redding -- but why the guests? Is this to draw attention to Toots' catalogue? Is this a way to suggest the stature he should enjoy, or is this how a bunch of artists polish up their own soul credentials?
Dollar Store, Dollarstore (Bloodshot) -- A country version of Cher's "Believe" with a hot Dave Alvin guitar solo is a great idea, but it's not the only one here. The Waco Brothers' Dean-O sings like an Average Joe and trusts the surging guitars and sweet melodies to hint at the gravity of the working-class dramas his vocals deliberately undersell.
The Blasters, Going Home (Shout! Factory) -- Speaking of Dave Alvin Š considering the release of last year's Trouble Bound, a second consecutive Blasters live album seems a little indulgent. But the set lists are sufficiently varied that this one doesn't feel like a milking. This is theoretically the last Blasters reunion show, though the DVD of the same show suggests brother Phil Alvin is skeptical of that. For the occasion, the band has special guests from rockabilly, blues and R&B, the styles the Blasters merged into "American Music," and the results are exciting, but not so exciting as to make this necessary. The DVD features a tribute to Lee Allen, who used to play with them, but the bottom line is that the Blasters' Testament should be in the collection of anyone who loves roots-based rock 'n' roll, and everything else is for fans.
George Harrison, Thirty-Three & 1/3 and George Harrison (Dark Horse/EMI) -- Harrison's later albums were recently reissued, and while there are some lovely songs ("This Is Love" on Cloud 9 being the standout), a strange affection for tinny, synthetic production makes finding the good ones on Gone Troppo and Somewhere in England a chore. That's a shame, because the high points show that Harrison deserved better than the blandly loving eulogies paid him when he died. It may be because his spirituality made people uncomfortable, or it may be he was overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney, but critics and fans missed the un-ironic warmth particularly evident on Thirty-Three & 1/3 and George Harrison. On these albums particularly, that humanity was tinted by the distinctly British, psychedelic darkness that lurks in Roald Dahl's and Dennis Potter's stories, and the soul in Harrison's voice makes it all seem very real.