Cool Spins: The Mix Staff Picks Their Current Favorites

Van Morrison Back on Top (Pointblank) Morrison's latest features some familiar sounds and stories, but rarely in recent years has this artist produced

Van Morrison Back on Top (Pointblank)Morrison's latest features some familiar sounds and stories, but rarely in recent years has this artist produced such a tight, well-formed package. The horn, guitar and organ-studded arrangements on this self-produced effort are beautifully realized, and Morrison's main instrument, his voice, is in perfect form. In some recent recordings, I have found backing vocalist Brian Kennedy overused, but on this album Morrison's soulful voice is right out front, and Kennedy adds some simple, harmonious enhancements. The string arrangements, by veteran Fiachra Trench, add subtle glory, and keyboardist Geraint Watkins, who I first noticed on Nick Lowe's most recent album, is a powerful talent. And the songs...The title says it all.

Producer: Van Morrison. Recording/mixing engineers (all except strings): Walter Samuel, Brian Masterson. Studios: The Wool Hall (Bath, UK) (except strings), Windmill Lane (Dublin, Ireland). Mastering: Ian Cooper/Metropolis (London).

-Barbara Schultz

Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band: The Mountain (E-Squared)Here's a match made in heaven-one of music's most literate and passionate songwriters and singers (Earle) fronting the creme de la creme of contemporary bluegrass bands. The results are positively electrifying. Earle has written 14 evocative original songs about workin' stiffs, railroads, broken hearts, a young Irish soldier fighting in the Civil's a an incredibly rich collection of songs, all beautifully rendered by Earle and the Del McCoury Band (whose own records are also worth checking out). Though he's fronting a bluegrass band, Earle still sounds like the hybrid rocker-folkie-country guy we know him to be-sort of like the mountain kin of John Prine and Bruce Springsteen. Iris DeMent duets nicely with Earle on "I'm Still in Love With You," and the CD's final track, a tribute to the late, great Nashville bassist Roy Huskey Jr., called "Pilgrim," features a galaxy of Nashville acoustic music greats.

Producer/mixing engineer: Ronnie McCoury. Recording engineer: Ray Kennedy. Studio: Room & Board (Nashville). Mastering: Hank Williams/Mastermix (Nashville).

-Blair Jackson

Paris Combo: Paris Combo (Tinder); Les Nubians: Princesses Nubiennes (Omtown)If your view of French music doesn't extend much beyond Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, it's time to check out these fine end-of-millennium offerings, both of which show what a truly international country France has become. Don't speak the language? Neither do I, and it doesn't matter a bit. Paris Combo, a quintet led by the pleasing singer Belle du Berry, is the more "traditional" of the two-its lineage to classic Parisian cafe/cabaret groups and '30s/'40s "hot jazz" groups is apparent on several cuts. But in keeping with the flavor of modern Paris, there are also strong Middle Eastern flavors on a few cuts and some gitane influences as well. It's an eclectic romp that swings and soars. Les Nubians are Helene and Celia Faussart, a pair of French/Cameroonian sisters from Bordeaux who specialize in a smooth, eminently listenable "Afropean" hip-hop and jazzy pop influenced by everyone from Arrested Development to Soul II Soul to Miriam Makeba. The sisters' harmony blend is exquisite, and throughout they're backed up by a combination of able live players and the usual beat-box/programmed rhythms. A nice surprise that is already winning converts in the U.S.

Paris Combo-Producers: David Lewis, Alain Cluzeau, Paris Combo. Engineers: Alain Cluzeau, Yannick Cayuela. Studio: Acousti Studio (Paris).

Les Nubians-Producers: Les Nubians, Mounir Belkhir, Lee Hamblin. Engineers: Pascal Garnon, Lee Hamblin, Sophie Masson, Tim Latham. Studios: Studio du Manoir (Lyon), Soul II Soul Studios (London), Studios Plus XXX (Paris), Studio Davout (Paris).

-Blair Jackson

Mike Ness Cheating at Solitaire (Time Bomb)Mike Ness' first solo album is a bit more countrified than his work with L.A. punk band Social Distortion, but only a bit. The most lovable aspects of Ness' music remain the same: his passionate gravel voice, washes of rhythmic electric guitars, strong songwriting and great taste in covers. In addition to his own tough originals, Ness offers a raucous take on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" and tender renditions of Hank Williams' "You Win Again" and the country classic "The Long Black Veil." He further shows off his good taste by getting Bruce Springsteen to duet with him on the sinister hard rocker "Misery Loves Company." Also, Brian Setzer's Gretsch is discernible on "Crime Don't Pay," and Billy Zoom of X rocks again on the darkest track, "Dope Fiend Blues."

Producers: James Saez and Mike Ness. Recording engineer: James Saez. Mixing: James Saez and Mike Ness. Recording studio: Ocean Studios (L.A.). Mixing: Bay 7 (L.A.). Mastering: Eddy Schreyer, Oasis Mastering (Studio City, Calif.)

-Barbara Schultz

Buck-O-Nine: Libido (TVT)The latest CD from the well-established San Diego ska-punk party animals known as Buck-O-Nine finds the band bopping all over the map stylistically, from exciting neo-Clash workouts to speedy, horn-driven ska and even some quieter, more contemplative numbers. There's lots of variety from track to track and for a group of anarchic f-ups, they play and sing with great precision and skill; obviously, they care about making good records. The challenge for this type of band is always to translate the spirit of their live performances to tape, and though I confess I haven't seen them play, I can say that the CD is a high-energy blast from beginning to end. It's great dance music, and the lyrics tackle a number of interesting themes, both social and romantic. You've got to love a band that announces "We're alright, 'cause we do what we do and we do it every night"!

Producers: Stiff Johnson, Buck-O-Nine, Harold Johnson. Recording engineers: Stiff Johnson, Steve Kravac. Mixing engineers: Chris Lord-Alge, Kevin Shirley. Studio: Big Fish (San Diego). Mastering: Gavin/ The Mastering Lab (L.A.)

-Blair Jackson