Old 97s
Fight Songs
(Elektra)

The Americana highway is littered with good intentions and broken hearts. In the old days, no one really noticed it much. Bands and singer/songwriters came and went; no one really paid attention to their stylistic mode or the then-unknown fact that they were spreading out a pavement of star-spangled glory for future generations.

By the late '60s, the Band, and to some extent the work of Bob Dylan, filtered Americana music through a rock-and-roll screen, giving it some guts to go along with the heart. The '70s and '80s coasted along on this ground, stopping in the '90s with a label all its own. Alt-country, No Depression, Y'allternative; whatever you want to call it, bands like Uncle Tupelo (and their spawn, Wilco and Son Volt), the Jayhawks, and Whiskeytown filled their brand of Americana music with equal parts muscle and soul. And with the originators come the duplicators.

Dallas's Old 97s slip somewhere between the cracks of Americana's highway. Too much of better bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown can be heard in the grooves of their fourth album, Fight Songs, but they are in no way cons. Leader Rhett Miller is a genuine country-pop punk, schooled in the Rolling Stones as much as he is Hank Williams; when he spits out "I would give anything not to feel so jagged" on the opening cut here, the despair and desperation in his voice (appropriately twangy and punky) is all too real.

The rest of Fight Songs follows suit: it's a desolate album, one of wrong choices and wrong turns down that endless gray highway (whether it be of life or the one surfaced by his ballad-singing musical ancestors). It twangs, it strums, and it rocks. Miller sounds a bit confined at times (never really unleashing the fury that Old 97s muster live), a captive of the studio that's miles away from the front porch. Yet, when he and the band kick up some dust on the pop-weaved "Murder (or a Heart Attack)," it's alt-country (actually, it really isn't; like Wilco's latest, Fight Songs leans more toward pop) stepping away from the labels and toward its roots, and carrying on a time-tested tradition.

--Michael Gallucci

Various Artists
Burning London: The Clash Tribute
(Epic)

A grump would say there's no need for a Clash tribute with Rancid running around. (A friend swears that . . . And Out Came the Wolves is better than London Calling.) But that would be unfair to the Clash, who did more than inspire kids to frighten their peers with Mohawks and discover ska. As evidenced by Burning London, the Clash scarred a lot of different hearts. Artists as diverse as the Indigo Girls, Moby, Cracker, and Ice Cube contribute to the project, as well as predictable admirers like Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Typical of tribute albums, artists who take the greatest liberties with the original material are the most fun to listen to. Ice Cube and Mack 10 add new lyrics to "Should I Stay or Should I Go" (a rap song to begin with). The Indigo Girls turn "Clampdown" into a funeral march. The Afghan Whigs had the unenviable mission of interpreting "Lost in the Supermarket," which was pretty damn perfect the first time around. With Topper Headon on drums, the Whigs slow down the pace, turn up the acoustic guitars, bring in a female background singer, and retain the song's lip-trembling power.

The Urge, Rancid, the Bosstones, and 311 stay faithful to the source. Silverchair's kicking version of "London's Burning" suggests the Aussies may have finally gotten the hint that grunge is dead. The duds include Moby and Heather Nova's barely conscious "Straight to Hell," Cracker's twang-and-smirk "White Riot," and--holy Billy Idol sighting!--the Sneer lends background growls to No Doubt's no-duh "Hateful."

--David Martin

Mase Presents Harlem World
The Movement
(All Out/So So Def Recordings)

Puff Daddy protege Mase may have been all that on Biggie's '97 smokin' summer jam "Mo Money Mo Problems," and the squeaky-clean image this smooth-shaven young marble-mouthed rapper displays may have even catapulted his debut album (Harlem World) straight to number one. But as an entrepreneur and leader of his own hip-hop crew--unimaginatively named after his album--Mase ain't no Puffy. Well, he's puffy, but in the literal sense of the world.

The Movement, the first album from Harlem World, is a carelessly slapped-together chunk of hip-pop with one eye on the charts and the other on retail. Abandoning any sense of artistic value, not to mention good taste (hell, they dip into the Lionel Richie songbook for one of their off-key, sing-along choruses), Mase and his posse of generic rappers (with token bad girl in way-too-short skirt in tow) skip the soul, flip the flyness, and dive straight into . . . well, what exactly?

Mase doesn't exactly have high street cred. His studio skills aren't nearly as tight as his mentor's (and executive producer Jermaine Dupree doesn't really help out much). And he only lends his rapping support a few times on The Movement. He's the grand showman here, a Barnum (or Bailey or one of the Ringling Brothers, take your pick) offering in the center ring, for your pleasure, your enjoyment, hip-hop's latest rapping clique. Take a listen--you'll hear. But it's a flat thud. Robotic beats, lame skits (can thespian skills on these bits get any worse?), and anonymous rap turns.

But props to Mase for at least busting out of the Puffy camp. The quintet he gathers here (including his twin sister) are more playful than any of Puff's more shrewd crew choices. Yet The Movement still sounds curiously like a Puffy joint. And beyond: "100 Shiesty's" and "Cali Chronic" learned well from Tupac and Dre, respectively. But that's gotta be expected. Mase grew up and prospered under the Puffster and learned how to be huge from one of the hugest, the Notorious B.I.G. Hip-hop is his world--his Harlem World. The Movement, however, argues that he's not quite ready to leave the hood and get a place of his own, no matter how much he thinks he deserves it.

--Gallucci

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