Cool Spins: The Mix Staff Picks Their Current Favorites

Various Artists: Bringing It All Back Home Vol. 2 (Valley Entertainment) This is the second in a three-part series meant to illustrate the impact of Irish
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Various Artists: Bringing It All Back Home Vol. 2 (Valley Entertainment)This is the second in a three-part series meant to illustrate the impact of Irish music on other musical traditions. The series, consequently, includes recordings by Irish artists, Irish Americans, English folk singers, American country artists and others influenced by Celtic music. It's not a totally original concept, but this CD, like the previous volume, includes some gems that Celtic music lovers will adore. "St. Ann's Reel/The Blackberry Blossom," which teams country/bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs with two other fiddlers-Paddy Glackin (Ireland) and Mark O'Connor (U.S.)-is a feast. Richard Thompson performs his gorgeous ballad, "Waltzing's for Dreamers," with backing vocals by Mary Black and Dolores Keane, and that muckraker Elvis Costello sings a creepy and comic original called "Mischievous Ghost" with help from Mary Coughlan, a Fiachra Trench-arranged string sextet, Davy Spillane on uilleann pipes and producer Donal Lunny on bodhran. Skip around and find your own favorites.

Producer: Donal Lunny. Engineer: Andrew Boland. Recorded on location in Ireland, U.S. and UK, and at Ringsend Road Studios, Dublin. Mastering: Charles Lawson. -Barbara Schultz

Eric Benet: A Day in the Life (Warner Bros.)Eric Benet's sophomore release is bad; and that's good. Benet's A Day in the Life blends a variety of musical styles to create a sultry R&B mix. He inserts a little old-school flavor with the '70s remake of "Georgy Porgy" and by adding a little funk with the diva bass player Me'Shell Ndegeocello on "Ghetto Girl." Though the guest appearances by Me'Shell, Faith Evans and Tamia contrast nicely with and accent Benet's strong, assured singing, it is Roy Ayers' appearance on "When You Think of Me" that shines brightest-the mixture of his acid jazz vibes and distinctive scatting and Benet's soulful vocals is impressive and tasteful. It's interesting to hear how Benet combines different styles and approaches throughout the disc. On "Something Real," for example, in the midst of an up-tempo bass and rhythm section you can hear the light scratching of a turntable, adding a fine hip hop flare. There's even a modern take on Kansas' pop hit "Dust in the Wind." A Day in the Life is definitely worthy of a cool spin, but the best word to describe it is "hot."

Producers: Eric Benet, Wyclef Jean, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, George Nash Jr., Brian Morgan, Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis, Somethin' for the People, Demonte Posey, Viktor DuPlaix. Engineers: Alek Sok, Andrew Holler, Sauce, Chris Theis, Jon Smeltz, Carlos Martinez, David Kennedy, Brian Morgan, Larry Funk, Nat Foster, Kevin "K.D." Davis (mix). Studios: River Sound Studios (NY), Glowy Studios (NJ), Larrabee North (North Hollywood, CA), Westlake Audio (Hollywood, CA), River Sound (NY), The Trakhouse (Chino Hills, CA), The B-Section (Elk Grove, CA), The Crib (Milwaukee, WI), Record Plant (L.A.), Sony Studios (NY), The Studio (Philadelphia). Mastering: Brian "Big Bass" Gardner/Bernie Grundman Mastering (L.A.).

-Mark Hopkins

Stacey Earle: Simple Gearle (Gearle Records)Stacey Earle got her first taste of performing helping out her more famous brother, Steve, on one of his tours. Now she's breaking through on her own with a lovely, heartfelt collection of original songs. The arrangements on Simple Gearle are, naturally, simple, in the poignant and true way of Gillian Welch's and David Rawlings' acoustic guitar-based recordings, and Earle has a sweet and clear voice. She sings mainly about basic emotions and daily life. With little adornment or fuss, Simple Gearle is as touching as it can be without being at all oversentimental. It's a treat for those who love real folk country.

Producer: none credited. Recording and mixing engineer: Nathan Smith. Studio: Main Frame Recording Studio (Nashville). Mastering: Eric Wolf/Wolf Mastering (Nashville).

-Barbara Schultz

Lee Hazelwood: Cowboy in Sweden (Smells Like Records)Although Lee Hazelwood is known for his work in the '60s with Nancy Sinatra, many folks don't know that he split the States for a stint in Sweden, and while there he participated in a movie called Cowboy in Sweden, which featured a bunch of his dark, off-beat songs. Now, thanks to this SLR reissue, we can enjoy his lush batch of song-stories, which hover curiously between campy and compelling. You can tell by listening closely to the words and some arrangements that Hazelwood is a weird, weird guy-an unbalanced maverick with a vision. It's tempting to lump it in with other swinging '60s/early '70s soundtrack/

Herb Alpert-type stuff-it contains some similar production values and instrumentation (lots of horns, strings, reverb, doinky "hipster guy" guitar playing, seductive female vocals)-but there's some deep-seated melancholy and vaguely threatening vibes going on here, with occasional assaults of gooey but surreal romanticism. Standouts are the haunting, anti-war "No Train to Stockholm" and the unsettling "The Night Before."

Producer: Lee Hazelwood. Associate Producers: Larry Marks, Donnie Owens, Jack Robinson, Shel Talmy. "For a Day Like Today" produced by David Anderle. Engineers: Mickey Crofford, Eddie Brackett. -Anne Eickelberg

Ali Farka Toure: Niafunke (Hannibal) and Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko: New Ancient Strings (Hannibal)What a wonderful music climate it is when acts from Mali, West Africa, receive exposure all over the world. Ali Farka Toure has been making exceptional records for years; he is perhaps best known in America for his groundbreaking collaboration with Ry Cooder four years ago, Talking Timbuktu. Toure has occasionally been compared to John Lee Hooker, and the opening track and a couple of others on his excellent new disc show why-this is a primal bluesman at heart, with a snaky electric guitar style all his own. Much of the rest of the CD is more in the African folk bag, but is no less interesting than the more Western-sounding pieces. The Diabate-Sissoko CD is a real find-a beautiful session of kora duets by two masters of the 21-string instrument which has both guitar- and harp-like tonalities. Over the course of eight compositions written by Diabate, the two musicians weave a lovely, at times hypnotic, spell, with melodies and rhythms effortlessly flowing in and out of each other. Lovely from beginning to end.

Niafunke: Producer: Nick Gold. Engineer: Jerry Boys. Additional engineering: Nick Robbins, Simon Burwell (mixing assistance). Studio: An old building in Niafunke, Mali. Additional Studios: Livingston, The Church and Elephant Studios (all in London). Mastering: Jerry Boys, Tom Leader/Livingston Studios.

Ancient Strings: Producer: Lucy Duran. Engineer: Nick Parker. Recorded at the Palais de Congres, Bamako, Mali. -Blair Jackson

Kofy Brown: Skinny and Tight (Simba Music)Kofy Brown is a Northern California-based group that has just released their third independently produced CD. Skinny and Tight sports 13 tracks, each reflecting a different aspect of the band's versatile style, which is a sort of mixture of funk, rock, hip hop and jazz fusion, with a retro '70s twist. Fronting a band consisting of guitarist Brian Hill, bassist Spencer Murray, drummer Maurice Miles and keyboardist Michael Wayne Meyers, vocalist/songwriter Kenya Sims brings the group's many influences together with a smooth, sensuous alto that is alternately mellow and powerfully energetic. Sims' lyrics are both poetic and emotionally charged, as she sings and raps about racism, love and society's ills.

Producer: Kenya Sims. Engineers: Spencer Murray, Generosa Litton, Marc Rosenberg, Raymond Randle. Studios: Simba Music (Oakland, CA), Raysun (San Leandro, CA), OTR (Belmont, CA), 880 (Oakland).

-Shannon Kenoyer

The Comedy Harmonists: Auf Wiederseh'n (Living Era)Anyone who has seen the recent German biopic The Harmonists will already be familiar with the vocal group's entertaining brand of close harmony singing and novelty vocal effects. Formed in Berlin in 1928, the Comedy (or Comedian) Harmonists were modeled on the popular American vocal groups of the '20s (such as The Revelers and the Mills Brothers) and became one of the most popular live and recording acts in pre-war Europe. Drawing from an eclectic catalog of jazz, pop and traditional folk music sources, the six-man group also recorded many familiar pieces by such classical composers as Strauss, Brahms, Offenbach, Rossini and Dvorak, usually enhancing them with innovative and technically challenging voice arrangements, accompanied only by piano. CD reissues are plentiful, but this Living Era release includes English sleeve notes and opens with the group's 1933 version of Ellington's "Creole Love Call," one of the many musical highlights of the amusing and dramatically polished film. If you missed the film, at least enjoy the original recordings.

Recorded 1928-1935 in Berlin, Vienna, London and Stockholm. No studios listed.

-Chris Michie