√ Bob Certified
Peter Buck’s guest role on three tracks (mandolin, 12-string electric guitar and more) isn’t the only reason you’ll be reminded at times of R.E.M., but the Decemberists’ stylish country-edged folk and literate tales (not to mention a trace of Levon Helm in some of Colin Meloy’s vocals) also recall bits of the Band. There’s not the overt ambition or complexity that you find in some earlier albums by the group, but the songs are sweet, intimate and wonderful. Among the standouts: “January Hymn” and “Down by the Water.” These lines from the former are typical of the delicate reflection contained in both tunes: Pale the winter days after dark / Wandering the gray memorial park / A fleeting beating of hearts.
GREGG ALLMAN’S “LOW COUNTRY BLUES” (Rounder)
√ Bob Certified
At its peak in the late-1960s and 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band may have been the most exciting blues-rock group in America—certainly when it came to pure rhythm and sonic dynamics. Gregg’s gravel-ground vocals were a powerful bonus to the basic instrumental thrust. All these years later, things are gentler (this is pure blues, after all, not blues-rock), but his singing has rarely been better during his solo works. The material—by such blues notables as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Sleepy John Estes—is solid and T Bone Burnett’s production continues to be endlessly rich. The rendition of B.B. King and Sam Ling’s “Please Accept My Love” is the finest recording of an old-school R&B lament since old-school was new.
WANDA JACKSON’S “THE PARTY AIN’T OVER” (Third Man/Nonesuch)
Has its moments.
There are some winning tracks here, including a raucous version of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” (in which the 73-year-old rockabilly queen changes the reference to Alicia Keys to Southern homeboy Jerry Lee) and a stripped-down treatment of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6.” Still, Jackson, who has been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence,” is no Loretta Lynn and “The Party Ain’t Over” is no “Van Lear Rose.” Even if the results are far more modest, White’s guitar work is exquisite and the band is a knock-out. For fans of early rockabilly, some other female notables from the ’50s include Lorrie Collins (of the Collins Kids), Charline Arthur and Janis Martin.
√ Bob Certified
Friends warned me to stay away from this movie because of one supposedly “unbearable” character, but I think that character is one of the strongest things in the latest from British director Michael Leigh. The film conveys an endearing sense of honesty and humanity as it takes us through four seasons in a British couple’s life as they approach retirement—watching them tend their garden, go to work and host various friends and family members during some good and desperate times. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are letter-perfect as the couple, but it’s still Lesley Manville’s film. Manville plays that supposedly unbearable character. She does complain and whine and grate on your nerves, but she also touches you as you realize this sad, fragile person is unraveling as she sees any chance for happiness in her life slowly slipping through her hands. A most affecting film
Even with the long list of actors who have picked up Oscars by stepping into role of a country singer (Sissy Spacek to Jeff Bridges), it’s hard to see how Gwyneth Paltrow could think of this clichéd soap opera as an opportunity or challenge. She’s creditable enough in the part of a country star who is being brought out of rehab too soon by her manipulative husband-manager (sound clichéd enough for you?), but the film is so filled with dramatic false starts and unconvincing turns that no one can feel good about themselves in the movie—except perhaps Garrett Hedlund, who looks and sounds good in a showcase role as a principled young country songwriter. He’s a star in the making.