An entire album devoted to the fleeting bloom of Japan's national flower and Washington's perennial tourist attraction? Actually, no. In fact the only track of 10 included in this Smithsonian Folkways collection to truly justify its title is "Sakura" (the Japanese name for cherry blossom), a folk tune whose haunting melody is likely to be familiar even to those who know neither its title nor its history. Performed on a koto, an elongated zither whose strings are plucked, "Sakura" has a haunting grace and ruminative solemnity echoed by another koto showcase, "Rokudan No Shirabe (Music of Six Steps)" and the shakuhachi flute ritual of "Hachigaeshi (Returning the Bowl)." However, there are several other tracks that suggest the album's, and Japanese music's, underlying aesthetic, that "harmony between humanity and the natural environment is an ideal philosophical state."

The most interesting of these are "Songs of the Stonemason," a brisk work song contrasting keening a cappella vocals against the rhythmic pounding of stones (reminiscent of railroad workers or chain gangs) and "Soran Bushi (Soran Song)," another work song built around the net-pulling rhythms of Japanese fishermen. Despite its title, "Sakura" is really less about cherry blossoms and more a sampler for Japanese traditional music and its favored classical instruments.

The material was drawn from field recordings for the historic Folkways label (now owned by the Smithsonian) and augmented with live recordings from various Smithsonian Folklife festivals on the Mall. In fact, the album concludes with an 11-minute ambient-folk construction, "Yuudachi (Evening Rainstorm)," recorded during the Smithsonian's 150th birthday party in 1996. In it, the Soh Daiko drum ensemble evokes the ebbs and flows of a sudden summer evening storm so vividly that you may find yourself looking for shelter.

-- Richard Harrington

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)


Allman Brothers

Despite suffering a turnover rate about equal to that of the typical pro football franchise, the Allman Brothers Band endures. Thrives even. The least psychedelic jam band in rock history is back with the wondrously familiar "Hittin' the Note," its first studio album in nine years.

The new material would blend with much of "Eat a Peach" or "Live at the Fillmore," those early-1970s double-LP classics that provided the road map traveled by future generations of Southern rock and jam bands. "Hittin' the Note" should appeal to Lynyrd Skynyrd fans and Phish-heads alike.

The most Skynyrd-like tune in the mix, "High Cost of Low Living," sure sounds like a warning to Dickey Betts, the great guitarist who was booted out of the Allman Brothers in 2000, reportedly because his hard living was getting in the way of his work. "You think you're a survivor, but, boy, you better think twice," sings Gregg Allman, who has kept the band going through the deaths of guitar-god brother Duane Allman and bassists Berry Oakley and Allen Woody. Gregg Allman's quick and painful marriage to Cher in 1975 didn't do the band in, either, but memories of it may have helped him growl through the fabulous new cover of the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone." Guitarist Derek Trucks, son of longtime drummer Butch Trucks, had jam-band bona fides before being brought in as Betts's replacement. The younger Trucks's slide and picking duels with Warren Haynes -- mellow on "Old Before My Time," frenzied on "Instrumental Illness" and "Maydelle" -- recall the Betts-Duane Allman interplay in the Brothers' heyday. And that was some heyday.

-- Dave McKenna

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)