THE BIGGEST highlight of the recent New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was Earl King, the hometown R&B veteran whose songs have been recorded by everyone from Professor Longhair to Jimi Hendrix. In a city dominated by danceable rhythms and melodic hooks, King is the one songwriter with lyrics as fresh as his music. In a city dominated by pianists, King is the standout guitarist, mixing stinging blues solos with catchy R&B riffs.
It would be a mistake to pigeonhole King as a quaint regional anachronism. His new album contains some of the best songwriting and performing in any genre this year, and King has contributed the best songs to the recent albums by George Porter, Anson Funderburgh, the Subdudes and James Davis.
"Sexual Telepathy" (Black Top Records). Here are eight new King compositions (plus three recycled obscure gems) that capture the classic qualities of rock 'n' roll's core repertoire: Chuck Berry's concise, catchy guitar riffs, Smokey Robinson's romantic metaphors, Fats Domino's bouncy New Orleans groove and Willie Dixon's witty streetwise philosophy. When it's done right, this stuff never loses its freshness, and King is the peer of these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. He's the only one still operating at the peak of his powers, and he's superbly backed by three different R&B all-star bands. From the intense romanticism of the heartbreak ballad, "A Weary Silent Night," to the exuberant sexiness of the title tune, this is one of the year's best.
James "Thunderbird" Davis
"Check Out Time" (Black Top). Between 1961 and '66, Louisiana's Davis cut a handful of singles (including the original version of "Blue Monday") for Houston's Duke Records before disappearing from public view. Those singles were never hits but they were much prized by R&B collectors, and one of those collectors, Black Top producer Hammond Scott, tracked Davis down in 1988. The result is this, Davis's first album after 33 years in the business. Davis still has the pipes of a first-rate Southern soul shouter; an all-star band led by Anson Funderburgh and Grady Gaines push him into some arresting performances. King's "A Case of Love" and Ron Levy's title tune stand up well next to the Wynonie Harris and James Carr standards, and Davis gives everything a gritty soulfulness.
George Porter Jr.
"Runnin' Partner" (Rounder Records). Porter, the anchor of the legendary New Orleans funk quartet the Meters, is the world's best funk bass player. He's far from the world's best singer or songwriter, though, and his debut solo album suffers from his attempts to fill those roles. King wrote two funny, catchy songs about romantic friction (and played guitar on them), and those are the album's highlights. The three instrumentals recall those memorable funk exercises by the Meters and feature the most muscular, inventive bass lines you're likely to hear anywhere.
"Live! From the Left Coast" (Rounder). Recorded a year ago in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, this live recording emphasizes the acoustic Cajun side of the band's music as opposed to the louder, more percussive zydeco side. It also introduces old-timey banjoist Al Tharp to the band's lineup, an unlikely but effective addition. Michael Doucet's fiddle is mixed up front and you can hear how his worldbeat experiences (he helps run the annual International French Music Festival in Lafayette, La.) have colored his Cajun fiddle solos with exotic drones and modal digressions. This album offers further evidence that Beausoleil, appearing July 14 at the Blue Bayou Music Festival at the Prince George's Equestrian Center, is one of the very best acoustic bands in North America right now.
"Beau Solo" (Arhoolie Records). This bonanza of traditional Cajun music features 22 different selections and more than 60 minutes of music. Accompanied only by his brother David on acoustic guitar, Doucet plays virtuoso fiddle and crudely effective accordion on a mix of traditional songs and instrumentals as well as a few originals in the old style. The austere arrangements and the old- fashioned high, lonesome sound may prove trying for Beausoleil's dancing fans, but this collection offers a high-fidelity window on Cajun music's rich past.
"Where There's Smoke, There's Fire" (Island). Buckwheat Zydeco (born Stanley Dural Jr.) may not be Louisiana's best zydeco bandleader (he still falls short of Rockin' Dopsie, John Delafose, C. J. Chenier and Boozoo Chavis), but he's the only one with a major-label contract. Thanks in large part to producer David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, this is the best Buckwheat Zydeco album by far. Just as the Los Lobos albums did with Mexican folk music, this album takes traditional zydeco and whips it up into a rock 'n' roll frenzy. Dural sings a duet with Dwight Yoakam on Hank Williams's "Hey, Good Lookin' " and with Hidalgo on Bobby Troup's "Route 66," and Dural's road band gives everything -- standards, new songs and instrumentals alike -- a rough goosing that should get everyone's hips gyrating.
"Women in the Room" (A&M). Richard pioneered the Cajun-rock fusion sound, only to find the form perfected by rival Wayne Toups. This album, his major-label debut, illustrates why Richard, who opens for Jimmy Buffett July 6 and 7 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, failed to capitalize on his own innovation. He emphasizes the most obnoxious aspects of rock 'n' roll -- the superstar attitude, the monotonous 4/4 beat and show-off riffs -- and allowed them to overwhelm Richard's Cajun roots. There are moments on this album when you can hear Richard's undeniable talent as a singer and accordionist, but they quickly get crowded out by his desire to be the Rod Stewart of Louisiana.