Molten Wax

If every CSN&Y album reeks of a cutting contest, it's no surprise that Young's farts come out smelling like potpourri. Nash's stash comes in a distant second by virtue of writing the least offensive songs in the batch. No one really comes in third here; it's more like a two-way tie for last. Crosby turns in two boring songs, one about wanting to "Stand Up and Be Counted" and the other a meandering meditation of how Crosby would like to teach his children well.

Even that torture can't compare to Stills, whose freedom rock these days sounds more like your crabby neighbor yelling, "Hey, you kids, get away from my car!" The press release claims Stills' "Seen Enough" was "inspired by Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'" If you ever wondered what that list of gripes would sound like slowed down enough so Burl Ives could reel them off, be my guest. Makes you wish Stephen would just cover "Silver and Gold" and "Holly Jolly Christmas" -- kids would really love him for that. Instead, he pushes for a third song on this album, an unprecedented feat unless your name is Neil. Too bad "Faith in Me" is Stills' excuse for pulling Joe Vitale and his timbales out of storage -- so he can write a song that the rasta lobster in The Little Mermaid might want to cover on his next LP.

Relics that they are, Gray Dad has one thing Gay Dad doesn't have, and that's tons of personality. Take the title track, "Looking Forward," where Young dares himself to write a song for the album without using the word "old" and then proceeds to use it twice. Looking Forwardwon't give CSN&Y relevancy in today's youth-obsessed world, but maybe that's not the point. I once heard a guy complain that when he went to a CSN concert, he watched them high-five each other after every single number. It makes you think it's not whether you win or lose the audience that counts, but just getting through the damned song without kicking the bucket. -- Serene Dominic

The Okra All-Stars
The Okra All-Stars
(Innerstate Records)

Dave Schramm
Hammer and Nails
(Catamount)

A double helpin' served up by Dave Schramm (ex-Yo La Tengo, Schramms) and some friends. First up: the Okra All-Stars, whose sense of cheek is matched only by their bubbling-over pool of talent. Less a group and more a collective with four lead vocalists who swap off, the Okras' instrumentation is diversely rewarding: loads of stringed thangs like Dobro, mandolin, hacksaw fiddle, electric tremolo guitar, lap steel, etc. Ricky Barnes, Hank McCoy, Jeb Loy Nichols and Schramm sing their hearts out with the easy conviction of West Virginia hillbilly siblings (Schramm is also one of the nine instrumentalists), traversing territory that'll be instantly familiar and appealing to fans of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Doc & Merle Watson, Coal Porters and other broad-based country/bluegrass/rock outfits.

Worth noting: covers of "One of These Days" (sweet and tender, with a terrific vocal duet between Barnes and McCoy) and "Purple Rain." For the latter, Schramm's backwoods tenor is oddly but perfectly suited, and the twangy arrangement suggests that a full volume of The Artist's material for the Pickin' On . . . series, which has yielded bluegrass treatments of Dylan, Springsteen, Hendrix, the Dead and Neil Young to date, is in order. Maybe featuring Schramm collaborating with Yo La's James McNew, who has himself issued a cassette-only collection of Prince covers, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice . . . but I digress. Actually, perhaps I should diverge by way of segue: Schramm left Yo La after its first album, 1986'sRide the Tiger, and proceeded to issue a string of low-key but exceedingly fine albums with his band the Schramms. (Last year's Dizzy Spellis highly recommended.) He also did a limited-edition solo album, Folk und die Folgern, for Germany's Return to Sender label (not so coincidentally, that label featured the A&R involvement of one Pat Thomas, now head of Innerstate, which released the Okra All-Stars record); and he moonlighted with class acts like Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, Richard Buckner, the Replacements, Freedy Johnston and more. Now Schramm's got his proper U.S. solo debut, and I'm pleased to say, Hammer and Nailsis as sweet a listen as they come. Not only does he reprise "The Way Some People Die" from Ride the Tiger (here, as a kind of Nebraska-style harmonica/acoustic guitar number), he boldly adapts an Emily Dickinson poem as "Funeral Song" to great effect (it suggests Townes Van Zandt doing "The Times They Are A Changin'").

Elsewhere, one encounters strummy country-folk numbers ("From a Word") and haunting, ethereal instrumentals; "Lambent Lullaby" is clearly informed by some of John Fahey's more straightforward picking excursions, while "Ragle Gumm" is delicate, sparse and sepulchral, with Schramm whispering the words over an arrangement of twangy Dobro and minimalist organ. In general, this album provides a wealth of gets-under-your-skin material suitable for early-morning meditation, midday relaxation or late-night commiseration. -- Fred Mills

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