February 5, 2003

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Grooves

Alan Senauke
Wooden Man: Old Songs from the Southern School (Native and Fine)

One bit of wisdom couched in Wooden Man: Old Songs from the Southern School, 18 musical lessons from Appalachia, Nashville, the Mississippi Delta, and the Louisiana prairie, is that authenticity can be a matter more of passion than of biography. Alan Senauke, a Berkeley-based Zen Buddhist priest who served for a decade as executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, came by his backwoods bona fides in the same manner as many other baby boomers.

Raised in suburban New York, Senauke plunged into the early-'60s folk revival, served as editor of Sing Out! magazine in the '70s, and eventually immersed himself in the Bay Area's old-time music scene. His 40-year commitment to old-time country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and Cajun music informs the casual impeccability of his acoustic guitar picking and the unstrained earnestness of his comfortably weathered voice.

Throughout Wooden Man, Senauke is joined by his peers in the traditional music scene and collaborators in such ensembles as the Bluegrass Intentions, the Aux Cajunals, and the Blue Flame Stringband, including Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, Bill Evans, Larry Hanks, Jon Sholle, and Eric and Suzy Thompson. On newly recorded versions of tunes by or associated with the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Woody Guthrie, Iry Lejeune, Dock Boggs, Reno and Smiley, the Carter Family, Stephen Foster, and George Jones and Melba Montgomery, plus two plugged-in country rockers from 1981, Senauke takes song catching beyond taxidermy and gives these artifacts new life in the present moment. Alan Senauke performs Sat/5, Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, Berk. (510) 548-1761. (Derk Richardson)

Funky Lowlives
Cartouche (Stereo Deluxe)

Taken in its separate elements, there's nothing spectacular about the debut album from London's Funky Lowlives. Latin percussion, dub-influenced studio effects, smooth vocals, and laid-back grooves – I probably have 50 recent CDs that could be described with the same phrases. So why am I digging Cartouche so much, constantly carting it from my stereo to my computer to my car and back again?

Part of the answer may come from "Breathless," a simple, almost too-sweet song with jangly guitars and stuttered rim shots. Vocalist Clare Szembek's little-girl voice toys with being cloying, but her elliptical vocals ("All the shit I thought I wanted to take, by the time I did it was too late / ... to everyone else it must have looked bizarre, thought half the time I was a superstar") add a touching, slightly goofy edge. Programmed as it is, in between the easy, swing groove of "Saturn Return" and the loping, dub-versus-spaghetti western "Berceuse" (both of which are reminiscent of the Lowlives' extensive remix work for the likes of Masters at Work and Tosca), "Breathless" is a bit of surprise but a welcome one at that. I'm caught off guard again on "Games We Play" when the congas and keys are pushed aside by bold flamenco guitars.

I guess what really has kept Cartouche in constant rotation isn't any one thing, but the way the whole album plays out. Barring the painfully vapid and pointless "Stay," all of the songs could stand on their own, from the swaying "Urban Illusion," with its rolling rhymes by Nappy G, to "Nevermore," which sounds like a jam band snuck into the Lowlives' studio. Played in its entirety, this album takes on a life of its own. (Peter Nicholson)

The Clean
Anthology (Merge)

Anyone with even the slightest interest in indie rock or Velvet Underground-related post-punk or the best way to record drums or in just feeling good about being alive is going to want a copy of this two-disc collection by the Clean, New Zealand's finest band, if only for songs three, four, and five off of the first disc. Released in 1981 as a part of the Flying Nun EP Boodle Boodle Boodle, the black comedy gems "Billy Two," "Thumbs Off," and "Anything Could Happen" are just better than everything else ever, plain and simple. The guitars are perfect, the drums are fucking happy, and the brothers Kilgour sing with accents that are totally awesome. You will never in a million years get sick of these three songs.

The rest of the album follows the band through their folk pop and psychedelic phases into the reunion years of the early '90s, with a bunch of live cuts and previously unreleased demos, making for a pretty comprehensive anthology. Not all of this is essential for casual fans but none of it is bad. It's just that some of their later stuff (the second disc, basically) sounds a little too much like 120 Minutes. But the first disc is so good, it doesn't matter. Also the Clean are one of those bands – all of their stuff is worth buying and listening to over and over again until you convince yourself that you love it. They are one of the most influential groups of all time, along with the whole New Zealand scene from that period – the Bats, the Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and more, more, more – like 50 bands that everybody worshipped during the '80s, and they all had the best drummers. But the Clean were the first to really take what the Velvets had started and run with it. (Mike McGuirk)

Willie Nelson and Friends
Stars and Guitars (Lost Highway)Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill)

Conventional wisdom has it that Willie Nelson's career as a songwriter – which lifted off during the early '60s – was shaped by Nashville's refusal to believe that Nelson should be recording his own compositions. Because, the story goes, his career as a singer was held in check, he was forced to sell his material to other artists to pay his rent. Give a listen to Crazy: The Demo Sessions (a terrific collection of demos Nelson recorded between 1961 and 1966) and you can hear the truth in this version of history. In 1962 Nashville wanted slick productions drenched in choirs and strings, an approach ill-suited to Nelson, whose oddly evocative voice and quirky phrasing work best with the kind of stripped-down arrangements found in these demos.

In fact, when Nelson's solo career took off during the '70s, the sound on albums like Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages wasn't far removed from what you'll find on Crazy. But on Stars and Guitars, which features Nelson in duets with a crew of rock and country stars (including ill-conceived matches with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Adams, Keith Richards, Matchbox Twenty, and Aaron Neville), it's evident that Nelson owes his success as a songwriter to more than just his ear for a hook. His songs are uniquely welcoming to other artists – listen to (I can't believe I'm writing this) Bon Jovi and Sambora on "Always on My Mind," or Norah Jones on "Lonestar." And when Nelson sings with, for example, Lee Ann Womack on "Mendocino County Line," or Patty Griffin on "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," you don't hear two solo artists fighting for the spotlight but a genuine collaboration: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The album was recorded live (the "special" guests were hired for the occasion) and the band is simply superb, which makes for some great music. Nevertheless, these days I wince each time I see an aging star paired with a posse of youngsters – imagine the boardroom conversation: "Hey, this guy's a stiff, and look what it did for Santana...." Still, Santana played me a few cuts from Supernatural at Fantasy in Berkeley a few months before that album dropped, and I winced then, too. So maybe Nelson's about to blow up all over again. In my opinion, though, he does fine without a bunch of store-bought friends, which is why every fan should own a copy of Crazy. (J.H. Tompkins)