Delta blues, Neil Young, and rap’s other white meat 

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Start With the Soul
(Hannibal)

Highly regarded as a rare lifeline to the acoustic blues tradition pioneered by Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell, Alvin Youngblood Hart is really far more than an echo of the past. Among his influences Hart cites the aforementioned, along with Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and, oddly, the U.S. Coast Guard in which he served on a riverboat in Natchez, Miss., for seven years, all the while honing his craft.

Hart’s two most recent albums, 1998’s Territory (Hannibal) and 1996’s Big Mama’s Blues (Okeh) both received critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Best New Blues Artist” among his five Handy nominations in 1997. Which brings us to his latest, Start With the Soul. Fans of Hart who have no desire to hear anything but the rural acoustic blues he’s renowned for—despite the fact that he is versatile enough to have toured with Afghan Whigs—will no doubt react fearfully to the initial burst of drum-fueled power chording that announces “Fightin’ Hard.” Start With the Soul finds Hart ferociously plugged in and toying with everything from acid jazz to soul in the classic power trio format.

Sounding inspired, although not particularly challenged, Hart tackles a mish-mash of material here and seems to wear a different hat on each of the album’s 13 tracks. Utilizing two distinct trios, one featuring touring band members Bill MacBeath and Daren Dolin and the other featuring Memphis legends Larry Fulcher and Frosty Smith, has given Hart the freedom to weave in and out of R&B-, rock- and jazz-laced themes with the greatest of ease. His guitar work, like his voice, plays a different character as each song unfolds, offering the listener aural photographs of the many musical minds of Alvin Youngblood Hart.

From the eerily dreamlike “Electric Eels” to his horn-happy treatment of the R&B chestnut “Treat Her Like a Lady,” Start With the Soul is Hart’s most abundantly personal record to date. It’s also perhaps a clear statement to the blues world that Hart is prepared to be remembered not only as a vessel of decades-old blues, but as a more than capable pioneer himself.

Neil Young
Silver & Gold
(Reprise)

Somehow, it’s not at all awkward to listen to Neil Young sing original songs about himself, his wife, his children, his past bands and their antics, rock-star suicides or just about anything else. What is awkward is just how comfortable the experience is. My first listen to Silver & Gold took place by chance in a record store, and it was then that I experienced the true meaning of the concept of timelessness firsthand. Certain what I was hearing was some Harvest-era collection of outtakes, I eagerly snatched up the jewel case only to discover that, while several of the 10 tracks were written as far back as 1982, Silver & Gold was a new album.

And indeed, the cycle continues. Ecshewing Crazy Horse once again in favor of longtime sidemen Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith, Young has returned to the odd melancholy and simple folk aesthetic of Harvest and—what seemed like eons later—Harvest Moon. Silver & Gold is a gentle, satisfying reminder of those past works, as well as of the fact that Young writes purely from the heart and for himself and a small circle of friends and cohorts who have quite unwittingly scribed four decades of historical texts that define American folk music. Of course, Young is a Canadian. But as someone recently pointed out, it makes little difference. Long may he run.

Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP
(Interscope)

Question: Did the world really need another Eminem record?

The real Slim Shady is back with a second Interscope release that’s every bit as “shocking” and “offensive” as the first, but sadly lacking any obvious anthem for the clueless dolts at the National Football League to adopt. In words he himself might use, Eminem is a punk-ass bitch, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

While much of what he schpiels off is nothing more than low-rent, absurdly sex- and violence-laden rhetoric that passes for clever rhymes—and even then only as a result of the capable helmsmanship of a certain Dr. Dre—some of it, like “The Way I Am” and “Marshall Mathers,” manages to evoke tangible emotion rather than directionless rage and criminal tendency. Yes, once in a while, Eminem even appears legit.

For Dre’s part, the production is seamless, the scope far-reaching. But there’s only so much that can be done with Eminem’s drug-addled street poems. Thankfully, special appearances by the soulful voice of Dido and the instantly recognizable nasal presence of Snoop Dogg manage to add some reprieve to 18 tracks that don’t otherwise differ all that much from each other or from the hundreds of other rap records that came before. Many a critic has compared Eminem’s sudden and extreme success to that of rap music’s other white meat, the Beastie Boys, but often without crediting the latter with forging their own subgenre out of the raw punk material of their past, rather than snagging the coattails of rap’s hardcore pioneers.

In some ways, Eminem is simply old hat wrapped in a new package, as are the records he’s made so far. In others, there are certainly glimpses of potential. But as long as he’s happy being an artist who’s only as credible as the list of rap legends he shares the control room with, then that potential will languish while teenage boys flock to Sam Goody for the latest Eminem tirade.

Answer: Probably not, but alas.

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