RECORDINGS : Quick Spins

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

DIRT FARMER

Levon Helm

It's hard to say what's more affecting here, the fact that Levon Helm has his voice back after losing it to throat cancer in 1998 or the heart with which he mines the musical and cultural mother lode of his Arkansas youth. Either way, "Dirt Farmer" stands as an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it.

Arrangements built around mandolin, fiddle, accordion and pump organ bring to mind Helm's work with the Band, as do the record's stacked vocal harmonies, which in two or three places evoke his old group's sublime take on "Ain't No More Cane" from "The Basement Tapes."

If anything, though, "Dirt Farmer" reaches further back in time than those epochal sessions. A handful of the songs here are traditional, and that's not including Helm's juking update of the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl," a ballad that had been around for years before A.P. Carter borrowed it from somebody he met in the hills of southwestern Virginia. Of the more newly minted songs on the record, Steve Earle's "The Mountain" and Buddy and Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross" drink from a musical wellspring that's been flowing for centuries.

Helm's world-weary drumming graces half a dozen tracks here. His daughter Amy plays drums on a couple of others and sings her heart out throughout, but maybe nowhere with more knowing relish than on the moaning chorus of Delta bluesman J.B. Lenoir's "Feelin' Good."

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE"Poor Old Dirt Farmer," "Feelin' Good," "Wide River to Cross"

A PLACE TO LAND

Little Big Town

With sweet, intense four-part harmonies that recall the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, the country band Little Big Town can slop almost any old verse on the page and get away with it. "Lord, I was born with a suitcase in my hand"? Dylanesque! "Baby, it's a fine line"? Shakespearean! A story-song about a woman denying blatant bruises and scars because she's addicted to domestic abuse? Okay, that one ("Evangeline") reads pretty good by itself. Add the singing and it becomes multidimensional. Both harrowing and soothing, it's one of the best songs on the subject since Martina McBride's "Independence Day."

Little Big Town -- Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, who married each other since the band's 2005 platinum-selling debut, "The Road to Here," as well as Kimberly Roads Schlapman and Phillip Sweet -- invests its songs with a certain oomph no matter where it's borrowed from. The opening "Fine Line" takes Fleetwood Mac's "Hold Me" another step deeper into mistrustful-lover territory; the closing "Fury" captures a seething response to betrayal so well that the song rises above a homage to Bad Company and 1970s rock radio.

But even when the music is predictable, Little Big Town has the versatility to plunge an unexpected voice or spirit into a straightforward lyric. "To Know Love" is, yes, a love song, but it has a stripped-down, hymnlike vulnerability. "Lonely Enough" is about pain and longing, but it has a vocal toughness that makes the sentiment more bearable. For this promising band, where the songs go is more important than where they come from.

-- Steve Knopper

Little Big Town is scheduled to perform Jan. 26 at 1st Mariner Arena.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Evangeline" and "Fury"

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