Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Smithsonian Folkways' lavish 1997 version of the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music was one of the great CD repackages--a gorgeously packaged and impeccably engineered introduction to music both unfamiliar and infinitely influential. Now those six CDs are joined by the never-released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four (Revenant). Harry Smith was the record collector, scrounger, and man about the avant-garde who conceived and sequenced all these compilations, and his unerring instinct for the great performance is why they still pack a punch. Most of the songs on this two-CD set were cut between 1935 and 1940, later than on the earlier volumes, and the artists include more famous names: Carter Family, Monroe Brothers, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson. So as a whole the material is slightly more focused and audience-savvy, easier on the unschooled modern ear. Most of the songs you don't know you'll love, and the ones you know will sound dandy--whoever Jesse James is, his Southern Casey Jones beats even Furry Lewis's on the original Anthology. Buy Volume Four and soon you'll be springing for the bigger and pricier original. Both are far more fun than history lessons are supposed to be.

An entirely different and equally effective reclamation is another follow-up: Billy Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. The English punk-folkie and the American alt-country unit having already released one acclaimed collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to new music, only a mooncalf would expect a second album culled primarily from the same sessions to match up. And admittedly, it's rougher. But it's just as captivating. Anyone who loves the first should start campaigning for volume three.

Puerto Rico (Putumayo World Music) is a lilting survey of salsa roots by mostly San Juan-based revivalists. It makes a nicely contrasting matched set with Tropicália Essentials (Hip-O), showcasing the modernistic, Beatles-tinged '60s work of contemporary samba titans Gilbert Gil and Caestano Veloso.

Playboy, June 2000

May 2000 July 2000