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Positive Friction
Donna the Buffalo
Sugar Hill

It's a sinnin' world when this band from upstate New York takes the stage. It's sinnin' to take the mixed metaphors of "Family Picture" so far toward New Age lyricism while making the words bop so hard they break out of their bounds. Likewise the blasphemy of bringing gospel feelings to a "Front Porch" too hip for its rocking chair. And it's sure as hell sinnin' to tempt us heathens with -- have mercy! -- such utterly danceable ditties.

The East Coast cousin of Colorado's mountain slash grass bands, Donna the Buffalo grew out of Appalachian roots music and evolved into a groove-oriented, reggae-beating band that takes down citified sensibilities with enough true grit to burnish us back to the natural state. They mix traditional instruments like steel guitar, fiddle, accordion and rubboard with African and Zydeco rhythms, yielding a mixture as intoxicating as a bottle of backwoods moonshine with a sugar-cane chaser.

The album opens at a leisurely lilt, tending toward the twangy on "No Place Like the Right Time." They hit their stride by "Yonder," the third track, and like one of their high-energy groovefest concerts, they don't let up once they've opened the gates. They're at their best when they're moving hard, as in the slow-driving rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow." If this is sorrow, send back the Zoloft.

Donna the Buffalo picks up where regional soul mates like The Horse Flies left off, raising the dust below boot-clad feet kicked up in abandon. Best of all, they bookend all that sinnin' with self-contained salvation, leaving you to decide which is the balm and which the elixir.

-- Owen Perkins

A Man Under the Influence
Alejandro Escovedo
Bloodshot Records

In his hometown of Austin, Texas, Alejandro Escovedo is a major star. And while he boasts decent followings in other areas of the country, he remains something of an undiscovered treasure after nearly 20 years of recording and touring. Like his earlier recordings, A Man Under the Influence works a musical terrain that ranges from lushly orchestrated folk to potent roots rock.

The CD kicks off with two elegant mid-tempo tracks -- "Wave" and "Rosalie" -- that are drawn from a stage play Escovedo has written, By The Hand of the Father. Employing washes of strings, acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards, these songs deftly employ the lovely yet sturdy sound he has developed fronting his Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. "Don't Need You" provides an effective variation on this sound, putting more of an electric edge over the top of acoustic guitars, organs and cello.

The full-on rocker in Escovedo is "Castanets," a bouncy, hard-hitting tune built around a thumping beat and stinging electric guitars. "Velvet Guitar" has an epic melody well-suited to the judiciously employed wall of electric guitars that give the song much of its heft.

A CD filled with memorable songs and heartfelt lyrics, A Man Under the Influence is Escovedo's most satisfying solo effort to date. It's also a CD that makes it easy to understand why the people of Austin hold Escovedo in such high regard.

-- Alan Sculley

Amnesiac
Radiohead

Capital

The past year has been a watershed time for Radiohead fans. The year 2000 saw the release of the ambient and distant architectural masterpiece Kid A, which remains one of the most convincing attempts to apply electronic-music sensibilities to the pop/rock genre. Last Tuesday saw the release of Kid A's sister album, Amnesiac.

Much has already been made of Amnesiac's alleged resemblance to Radiohead's 1997 opus OK Computer. That claim is spurious at best. For one thing, Amnesiac was recorded during the same session as Kid A and the two were originally intended for release as a double album. Each album stands up as cohesive, contained statements, and the production choices that differentiate the albums -- more upfront vocals on Amnesiac, for example -- serve to support the decision to stagger the release of these wonderfully modern works.

As concept rockers a la Pink Floyd, Radiohead does more than simply write catchy tunes and retail them to the pop marketplace. They use their huge industry and fan credibility to introduce musical ideas the average pop radio listener would probably never come across, and they should be lauded for that. For everyone who has said that the future of music lies in the rhythms of "electronica," take notice: Radiohead has already signed the papers and sealed the deal between rock and electronic music.

With the stage being cleared of all the Britneys, Christinas and artificially prepubescent ber-boys, the time has come for a shift in rock's trajectory, and again, as in 1997, Radiohead is there to steer the ship.

-- Ben Buehler

  • Reviews of the latest tunes from Donna the Buffalo, Alejandro Escovedo and Radiohead.

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