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A review of "Among Friends 1999," "Nickel Creek," "Turn," and "Employee of the Month"

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"Among Friends 1999," Various artists (GNT) — This two-CD project features a local band of musicians who play and sing from the heart for the sheer love of the song. The music in this eclectic, two-hour live set is rooted in a straight-ahead folk style, but the diversity of the players' talents creates a wide-ranging variety in the performances. It's tough to pick favorites, but it's easy to love George Turman's gorgeous take on "Something in the Way She Moves," Jackie Frost's honest reading of "High Sierra," Chris Fuller's driving yet easygoing vocals on the "Pickin' Party" jam and Daniel Clarke's piano throughout. Libby Dunton, Frank Coleman, Richard Ward, Sheryl Warner, Billy Lux and Danny Hughes each contributes estimable vocal and instrumental talents and also receive well-deserved featured moments. "Among Friends 1999" captures a refreshing communal musical spirit where competitive egos are checked backstage and the song is the star of the show. Support your local musicians and seek this one out by calling 730-9345.

— Ames Arnold

Nickel Creek, "Nickel Creek," (Sugar Hill) — Exceptional young talent comes along occasionally in all musical forms. Astounding players and singers barely in their teens have starred in blues, bluegrass, country and rock groups, and some have made names in classical music. At ripe old ages that range from 18 to 22, the members of acoustic band Nickel Creek may seem out of this prodigy category. But friends Chris Thile and Sara and Sean Watkins found the mandolin, fiddle and guitar respectively in their mid-teens in San Diego, and through hours of practice each quickly discovered exceptional talent. They formed a band and have been winning individual instrumental and collective awards since. They've recently added dad Scott Thile on bass to the lineup.

Produced by Alison Krauss, the project is an aural gem that ranges from fast-flying instrumentals to soaring melodic ballads. A few short years from the band's inception, all of the players are now multi-instrumentalists, and Sara and Chris display the same kind of pure lead vocals that fans of Krauss know well. The band mixes rearrangements of traditional folk and bluegrass tunes with their own original songs to create an eclectic collection that will please any fan of acoustic music.

— A.A.

Great Big Sea, "Turn" (Sire) — Who knew Newfoundland was such a happening place? Great Big Sea, one paper wrote, is as evocative of Canada's maritime province "as were the Beach Boys of California." One member says the band's sound — a blend of old and new, fusing traditional instrumentation (bouzouki, bodhran, mandolin, accordion, whistles, fiddle) with pop smarts and flawless, four-part harmonies — grew out of their homeland's geographical isolation.

The witty, lively "Consequence Free," a GBS original, pairs up seamlessly with the witty, lively "Jack Hicks" which dates to the early 1800s. The quartet strikes that kind of Oyster Band balance on all 13 tracks: "Boston and St. John's" and "Bad As I Am" are struck from the same flint as such chanteys and ballads as "Ferryland Sealer" and "I'm a Rover."

Or vice versa. "We saw no point in taking these songs and regurgitating them," reads the GBS bio. "The challenge for us was to reinvent these songs and make them accessible ..."

Don't pass this one up.

— C.A. Shapiro, The Virginian-Pilot

Austin Lounge Lizards, "Employee of the Month," (Sugar Hill) — This year marks the Lizards' 20th year of performing tunes that manage to satirize everyone without exploiting anyone. Skewering bad country music, stupid politicians and clueless middle-class dweebs, the Texas-based Lizards is a smart and talented outfit, with deft musicianship rooted in plenty of guitar, fiddle and twang. The most recent collection, "Employee of the Month," is no exception. There's the family hovering around the deathbed of a dying relative vying for his stuff with shameless greed, and the minivan types relishing the joys of yuppiedom. "Stupid Texas Song" plays on the pride of some of our nation's most proud, while "Leonard Cohen's Day Job" pokes fun at the songwriter's romantic indulgences. There's also a right-to-the-point song about the country music star that laments the supposed sorrows of stardom. This is a broad mix, indeed, and a fine batch of craziness to pick from for a live show. However, I'm not sure how many times I'm going to listen to the CD despite the fine playing and cleverly crafted lyrics. A listener can pretty much catch the drift on the first run-through. The Austin Lounge Lizards play Thursday, March 30 at Poe's Pub.

— A.A.

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