Spins

Soul Serenade
THE DEREK TRUCKS BAND
Columbia

Unclassified
ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND
Dare/Warner Bros.

Slide guitar makes too cool a noise to ever go the way of the rotary phone, yet, just the same, it's nice to have a couple of hotshot youngbloods to infuse new life into the ax. Derek Trucks: member of the Allman Brothers Band, nephew of original member Butch Trucks. Robert Randolph: revolutionary pedal steel player who came from the once way-underground world of Sacred Steel gospel, now a fixture on the jam band circuit. They may not share much in the way of cultural background, but both play with the kind of virtuosity mixed with soul that belies their years.

In early '90s, Trucks was a tow-headed pre-teen who would come down from his home in Jacksonville to play much-hyped gigs at places like Skipper's. Not being big on prepubescent phenoms, I didn't pay much mind — for a good long while. Then I caught his band opening for the Allman Brothers at Ruth Eckerd Hall last year, and was duly impressed. He had a jazz/Latin/world beat sensibility that surprised me. Soul Serenade continues in that vein.

Trucks' group is essentially a jazz quintet with a rock edge, led by a helluva fiery guitar player. Trucks and company take on Mongo Santamaria's seductive "Afro Blue" with the same kind of pulsing swing that characterized early '70s ABB. In fact, most of the material on Soul Serenade is propelled by some manner of swing. Trucks' simpatico band mixes in organ and other keyboards, as well as plenty of flute. But there's no mistaking that this is Trucks' show. He is something of a reincarnation of Duane Allman, although his tone is generally rounder, less cutting. He has a canny way of mixing single-note runs with slide smears. In all, his playing will make your hair stand on end. One complaint: Soul Serenade is only 42 minutes long. This is the kind of album that should max out the CD format — not all those pop and hip-hop records pumped with filler.

Last year, Randolph emerged from the House of God Church in Orange, N.J., to blow minds with his fierce, rockin' attack on pedal steel — long known as the whining accoutrement to many a country song — and pumped-up take on instrumental gospel. (He turned Skipper's into a tent revival, with a little Hendrix thrown in, during his Tampa Bay debut last year.) His Live At Wetlands album first came out on an indie and was then was picked up by Warner Bros.

Unclassified, Randolph's first studio album, is much more song-oriented. Eight of the 11 selections feature vocals. The lyrics, while generally positive and uplifting, avoid overtly religious themes. Randolph may consider himself unclassified, but he's clearly shooting for crossover. As a singer, he's improved but not much more than adequate.

Randolph's playing is still a wonder — he, too, is in touch with his inner Duane — even if he leaves us wanting more. Ultimately, the disc's best songs are the three instrumentals. "Calypso" is reminiscent of vintage Santana. "Squeeze" opens with a touch of country shimmer, then busts into a churning romp built around a nifty riff. "Run for Your Life" closes the disc in spirited style, rolling out the pell-mell two-beat while Randolph scorches the strings. The song even has one of those big-crescendo false endings that gives way to one more gallop, one of Randolph's favorite stage conceits.

It's reassuring to know that these cats are around helping us slide into the 2000s.

THE DEREK TRUCKS BAND:

ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

Reconstruction Site
THE WEAKERTHANS
Epitaph

The world's greatest Americana band is from Canada. Go figure. Literate Winnipeg prairie-rockers The Weakerthans left the cred-heavy vibe and limited reach of excellent imprint Sub City to fill an empty "what the fuck are they doing here?" position at Epitaph for their third full-length. One might think it'd be just another thing for songwriter John Samson to get all maudlin about. But Reconstruction Site is unarguably the most upbeat, straightforward release by The "thans (shitty nickname, I know) to date. And it's exactly that happy, sing-songy vibe that contributes to the feeling that they might be slipping a bit — only a bit, the smallest bit the smallest device ever designed to measure bits can record, but a bit nonetheless.

Their last outing, Left and Leaving, was steeped in poetic atmosphere, epic sequencing and inventive arrangements that ended up sounding catchy almost in spite of itself — and it was perfect. Reconstruction Site comes off like an ace collection of twangy pop songs, and on that count, it scores. "(Manifest)," "The Reasons," "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue," "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)," hell, just about everything here is killer. But the whole lacks the weight of its predecessor, no matter how cool the choruses (and holy shit, "Uncorrected Proofs" slays). The sense of atmosphere and cohesiveness that autographed previous releases is lessened and, no matter how immaculately constructed these tunes are, the complete picture is a bit less impressive as a result.

On the plus side, The Weakerthans hitting on three cylinders are miles better than just about anything else that's out there trying to connect on trend or vibe rather than great songs and earnest expression. And of all the emotions precisely and eloquently kicked off by the songs that make up Reconstruction Site, the one that connects most immediately is hope. As in the hope that more bands might develop fully enough that they're this on, even when they're a little bit off. —SCOTT HARRELL Harrell

In the Jungle Groove
Motherlode
JAMES BROWN
Polydor

Sometimes leftovers are tasty, sometimes they're crap. In the case of one James Brown, they make for a damn nice meal. These songs were recorded in the late '60s and early '70s, arguably the Godfather's funkiest period, then issued as rarities in the '80s as In the Jungle Groove and Motherlode. Universal reissues them here for the first time on CD, with some bonus tracks included. The bottom line: Funk, with a capital F. Brown's bands bite into these grooves like a pit bull and shake 'em for all they're worth. You get instrumentals, live takes, extended versions and remixes. The music brims with breaks and vamps, Brown's squeals, raps and grunts. And there's not a drum machine to be heard. Genuine, organic, elastic funk. These discs are best owned as companion pieces, but if you had to choose, Jungle Groove is the more satisfying. It's more fortified with songs, including extended versions of "Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothing," "Soul Power" and "Hot Pants." —ERIC SNIDER

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