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Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston; A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt; Kate Campbell; Big Wu; Tony Price; BR-549; Fathead.

Now Hear This

Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston, "It's Spooky" (Jagjaguwar)

The songs on "It's Spooky" are extremely primitive. Fair and Johnston mostly stick to a meager and poorly played combination of drums and acoustic guitar. But when they don't, that's when the music can really get weird. Examples include the 42-second a cappella number, "McDonald's on the Brain," and the melody of a dog barking on "She's Kicking the Dog."

Some songs you could even call enjoyable. The title track is a standout with its drag beat, wobbling-balance effect and with Fair's lyrical obsession with dead people. There's a classic Johnston song, "Casper the Friendly Ghost." And I dare anybody not to feel better after listening to the piano duet "Happy Talk." This can be a fun and amusing album if you don't mind how weird it is — and how often it's just plain bad. — Wayne Melton

"Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt," Various (Vanguard)

By all accounts, Mississippi John was a first-rate gent and noble master of the 20th-century folk song. "Avalon" does nothing to tarnish this legacy. Full of fine acoustic-guitar fingerpicking and front-porch singing, this 15-cut CD finds some of America's best folk and pop singers wading into Hurt's weighty song catalog with respect and refinement. The ever-dependable Chris Smither gets the set off to a fine upbeat start with a worthy rendition of "Frankie and Johnny." Bill Morrissey, a folkie who recorded his own Mississippi John tribute a couple of years ago, does a gritty job on "Pay Day," and John Hiatt's version of "I'm Satisfied" tells no lies. Everybody's darling of the hour, Lucinda Williams, aches her way through a beautiful, wise and world-weary performance of "Angels Laid Him Away," and it is perhaps the highlight of the set. Others such as Dave Alvin, Gillian Welch and Taj Mahal add to this solid collection of classic tunes. Produced by Peter Case, "Avalon Blues" is a reminder of how good simplicity can sound when it's handled with loving care. — Ames Arnold

Kate Campbell, "Wandering Strange" (Eminent)

Campbell grew up a Baptist preacher's daughter in the Deep South and she learned her musical and religious lessons well. But growing up, she also listened to pop, bluegrass and boogie-woogie, and she emerged from her background with her eyes open. As a result "Wandering" should please a variety of folks looking for an adult Christian-oriented CD. This was recorded in the legendary Fame Studios in Alabama with soul-music luminaries Spooner Oldham on keyboards and David Hood on bass, and Campbell gently works her way through a set of songs that includes original tunes as well as compositions dating from the 18th and early 20th century. Filtering her strong religious beliefs through folk and pop musical sensibilities, Campbell's strong, pure soprano offers a prayerful vehicle to listeners celebrating, or looking for, redemption. Promised Land glories and a saving faith drive her tuneful and cleareyed visions, and Campbell delivers her hope-filled songs with befitting grace. This project is firmly rooted in a New Testament outlook and is not for everyone. But for those looking for a folk-based Christian recording full of beautiful singing and simple arrangements, "Wandering Strange" should satisfy. — A.A.

Big Wu, "Folktales" (Phoenix Rising)

With a faithful grass-roots following of "Wusters" back home in Minneapolis, throughout the Midwest and scattered fans across the country, the Big Wu seem poised to make the leap into the national jam-band spotlight. Veterans of the HORDE tour and the frat-party circuit, the bluegrass/rockabilly/funk/jazz/down-home quintet are now gaining national recognition for their relentless festival appearances and for their Big Wu Family Reunions, an annual throw-down in their home state.

"Folktales" is the group's second studio effort; they also released a very successful live album. A vast improvement from the quality of their debut, "Folktales" is obviously a product of hard work and planning in the studio. The versatility of the band shines throughout the entire 10-track album. They transport the listener into the song by creating an experience rather than retelling a story. The extended, tumultuous solo in "S.O.S." paints a vivid picture of a hopelessly stormy sea before a gently soaring guitar brings the listener back to safety. The rollicking piano stomp of "Minnesota Moon" recalls images of a lively saloon in the Old West, while the biting lyrics mock yet another hippie who went to Colorado. Musically, the band is superb, and lyrically, it is equally creative, switching gears from one song to the next — from self-mockery to hometown love to plays on words — sometimes wrapped into one. For a jam band to translate well from the stage to the studio is rare, especially on its sophomore effort, but The Big Wu seems undaunted, and rumor has it the musicians are even more fearless on stage. — Ford Gunter

Tony Price, "Midnight Pumpkin" (TMG-Antone's)

Price's latest is a great addition to her outstanding CD catalog that dates back to the early '90s. It's set in the middle of the usual acoustic-based rock, pop, jazz and blues arrangements, and Austin-based Price weaves her throaty vocal magic with an understated soul and a swaggering sex appeal that few singers who shout from the rooftops can muster. "The Right Kind of Man" finds Price musing on love, sweet love, to a lone clarinet's riffs, while "Call of My Heart" takes Toni out to the outskirts of town for a little cut-loose time. Blaze Foley's "Darlin'" hits on a lonesome-prairie vibe that leads into the swampy "Measure For Measure," and Price nails Joe Tex's classic "I Want To Do Everything For You" with down and dirty satisfaction. Primarily surrounded by the usual excellent Austin suspects on guitar, mandolin, bass and drums, this singer swings with so much ease and joy it's easy to wonder why she's only modestly well-known.

Part of the answer is that she proudly plays no instruments, she writes no songs, and she rarely leaves Texas to tour. But anyone who has heard her recordings or seen her cast her spell over a smoky barroom crowd knows what this gal is about. Powerful and petite, Price whispers ballads that break hearts, and she cuts loose smooth and cool for a jazz-blues tease. In a town known for its great girl singers, Toni Price holds her own and "Midnight Pumpkin" shows why. — A.A.

Coming to Town

Who: BR-549
What: "This Is BR549"
Where: Innsbrook after Hours, Aug. 22, 6:30 p.m., $5
Why: This countrified honky-tonk quintet confounds me. Great players and good singers, these guys can do it all musically. But I've never liked the songs or the country-hick routine. The band's latest mostly bags the yee-haw attitude for straightforward playing and singing, but the songs still leave me wanting more. "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal" gets the 12-cut project off to a rocking start, and the cover of the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love" is a good idea. "The Game" breaks the mood with a gentle bit of philosophy, and the surprising inclusion of "A Little Good News," Anne Murray's No. 1 pop-country hit from 1983, is as truthful and dopey as it was 18 years ago. But "Let's See How Far You Get" — a tune penned by Harlan Howard and Kostas — is stock-and-trade stuff. "Psychic Lady" and the remaining tunes also wear quickly after a listen or two. BR549 fans will welcome their heroes back, but I'll wish them better songs on the next outing. — A.A.

Who: Fathead
What: "Boundless"
Where: The Canal Club, Aug. 23, 9 p.m., $5 ($8 for 21 and under)
Why: Fathead comes out of Philadelphia with a new album and a description that many, many bands like this use: "Honestly, it doesn't fit any one genre of music," reads the press release. Well, that's what they all say, but this music does fit many genres. All the usual suspects are here: hip-hop, metal, urban, jazz, rock, and the list goes on and on. Most of it is danceable and funky. How does it work for them? Pretty good. I like their MCs. The recording is professional and the songs are well-written and creative. Even a few risks come off well. But when you start throwing all these genres together — especially heavy metal and hip-hop — you are almost guaranteed to make some bad combinations, which is too often the case here. — W.M.

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