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CD's are rated from 1 to 5 stars.

Dixie Chicks "Taking the Long Way" (Sony Music)

The Dixie Chicks have down pat the formula for a perfect record.t. It must contain the following: one or two crossover singles conducive to pop radio; authentic bluegrass-rooted twang tracks; heartbreaking ballads; an anthem a la "Wide Open Spaces"; and at least one feisty song to push the limits. The Texas three have created yet another masterpiece. Natalie Maines has one of the strongest voices to come out of country music in the last decade; some might say one of the biggest mouths too. But she would probably agree with that. "Not Ready to Make Nice" is an unrelenting retort to the public backlash the trio endured as a result of Maines' anti-Bush remarks in 2003.

The girls kick up dust with the spunky, fiddle-fueled "Lubbock or Leave It" and explore blues-tinged territory on "I Hope" alongside the soulful voices of Keb' Mo' and Bonnie Raitt. The influence of singer-songwriter friends like Patty Griffin and Sheryl Crow is evident throughout the hour-plus disc as poignant lyrics take on war, Alzheimer's and the responsibilities of raising kids. Seamlessly tied together by the pristine production of Rick Rubin, this is one of the year's best. ****— Hilary Langford

AFX "Chosen Lords" (Rephlex)

Richard James (aka The Aphex Twin aka AFX) is electronic music's great eccentric. He was a constant presence through the 1990s, popping up in groundbreaking videos ("Windowlicker") while maintaining his weirdo rep by buying and moving into an abandoned bank and tooling around the English countryside in a tank. After 2001 he kept his distance and released no new music; many assumed he'd retired. In 2005, he returned with 11 (count 'em) new EPs, vinyl only, each titled "Analord," all created on vintage analog synths. The best of that unwieldy lot is collected here on one CD. The "Analord" EPs seemed at first a strange regression, returning to the squelchy techno and acid house of James' early years without updating the sound. But trimmed of the many throwaways on the EPs, the material holds up quite well, neatly demonstrating James' mastery of tune and timbre. The music is stiff, robotic and yet somehow soulful, filled with eerie melodies that linger long after the CD ends. ***— Mark Richardson

"Strummin' With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen: A Tribute" (CMH records)

You never know what Diamond Dave will do next. First, he's high-kicking in buttless chaps with Van Halen, then singing oldies covers, then working as a New York paramedic, then flunking as a radio DJ replacement for Howard Stern. Now he's lending gruff vocals to a Van Halen tribute featuring some of the finest bluegrass players around. Yep, David Lee Roth sings on two numbers accompanied by the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band: a ridiculously peppy version of the '80s hit "Jump" and a better, slowed-down "Jamie's Cryin'" that emphasizes the heartache in the original. Considering Van Halen was built around an innovative guitar god, it makes sense that bluegrass whizzes would have fun here. Highlights include the speedy instrumental version of "Hot for Teacher" by David Grisman and Sons and one of rock's most famous solos, "Eruption," played on banjo by Dennis Caplinger. The covers are mostly from early Van Halen records (thank all that's holy), but it seems unintentionally funny when disciplined country singing meets cock-rock lyrics such as "I can't wait to feel your love tonight," sung by Tony Trischka, or Iron Horse singing "Non-stop talker, what a rocker!/Blue eyed murder in a size 5 dress." Last I checked, overalls didn't come in spandex. ** — Brent Baldwin

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan "Ballad of the Broken Seas" (V2 Ada)

Isobel Campbell, the mythical Belle of Belle and Sebastian, makes an odd pairing with The Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan on "Ballad of the Broken Seas" — but it definitely works. Lanegan's deep, gravelly Tom Waits drawl complements Campbell's high whisper of a voice like a modern-day Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Together, they sound both mysterious and poppy, with Campbell's Scottish folk music, shiny Nick Drake guitar chords and Lanegan's down-tempo rockabilly offering a study in contrasts. A song such as "Ramblin' Man" sounds like dirty old country music, while another tune like "The False Husband" delivers softer, folksier music with soothing orchestration. Although sometimes a bit uneven, "Ballad of the Broken Seas" is an intriguing collaboration between two talented artists who excel at moody music. *** — Ira Calos

The Streets "The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living" (Vice Records)

Mike Skinner blew everyone away in 2002 with his first album, "Original Pirate Material." The witty rhymes, chunky beats and straight-shooting observations about life at street level quickly made him the world ambassador for the U.K.'s grime-music scene. (Despite the plural in the name, The Streets is just Skinner.) His second album, "A Grand Don't Come for Free," was a tragicomic operetta that told the story of the narrator's lost-and-found $1,000 savings. It was a clever idea, but track for track there was a lot of filler. Now a rich and famous Skinner is back, and he has less to complain about. While the music has grown more authoritative (the opening track "Pranging Out" has a particularly majestic sound), the beats feel a little tired, and the squirrelly energy of the first release is gone. But Skinner has resharpened his tongue. In "Two Nations," a meditation on the differences between America and England, he reflects "We love Biggie, Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder/It's no biggie we got no cash and it's no wonder/Because I'm proud we gave you people like John Lennon/Even though you shot him as well." Fair enough. *** — Amy Biegelsen

"Captain Beefheart: Under Review" (Sexy Intellectual) ***

"The Velvet Underground: Under Review" (Sexy Intellectual) **

These two discs (sold separately) compile old music footage with critics' opinions and informative bits from former band members for what feels like a dry episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" — except these actually go behind the music. Gone are the juicy tales of sex, drugs and ruined lives.

Still, both DVDs could use more old music footage.

It's not going out on a limb to say that the Velvet Underground was one of the most influential rock bands in modern music. The 85-minute DVD traces the evolution of the group through its most memorable albums, with insightful commentary from two members, drummer Maureen Tucker and Doug Yule (notably missing are founders John Cale and Lou Reed). Village Voice rock dean Bob Christgau makes a convincing case for Tucker's drumming as a pivotal point of the Velvets sound and an important precursor to punk music. There's some inside stuff about the group's album covers, but still nothing too revelatory here — simply a good introduction for new VU fans. Without input from central figures, it falls short.

The longer Captain Beefheart DVD (115 minutes) offers a more intriguing musical analysis from old and new band members. Don Van Vliet (aka Beefheart) took Howlin' Wolf blues vocals, free jazz influences and a cut-and-paste style to create one of the most artistically interesting groups of the late '60s and '70s. Here, former Magic Band players including John French, Gary Lucas, Elliot Ingber and Eric Drew Feldman, discuss Van Vliet's innovative approach to nearly everything (especially recording) — and one walks away with a better understanding of the Captain's legacy as a true rock experimentalist.

Overall, these rather artless minidocumentaries are recommended for newcomers, but longtime fans seeking rare footage will likely find them lacking. — Brent Baldwin

"Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel" DVD (BBC/ Rhino) ****

Credited with helping originate country rock, Gram Parsons did a lot in his 26 years. Born into a wealthy Florida citrus family, he became a charismatic singer/songwriter with hit-or-miss vocal talent who could never quite focus and was eventually seduced by the dark side (or, more specifically, Keith Richards).

The tragic arc of his life makes for rich documentary material in this well-paced, exhaustively researched film featuring insightful commentary from family, friends and former bandmates.

Although he never had a hit, such Parsons-fronted bands as The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers influenced popular music and helped usher in the massively successful, watered-down country rock of bands like the Eagles in the 1970s.

Director Gandulf Hennig doesn't fawn here, but he makes it easy to get wrapped up in the colorful details of the singer's life. Parsons' father, a WWII bomber pilot, committed suicide when he was young, and his mother died soon after from alcoholism. Parsons attended Harvard briefly before flunking out and pursuing a music career influenced heavily by George Jones and Buck Owens. All the while, he lived as if he knew his young life would end prematurely — right down to the drug and religious icons imprinted on his trademark nudie suit.

To his credit, he was able to introduce younger, "hip" generations to real country music while penning some of the greatest country soul songs ever written (like his "Love Hurts" duet with Emmylou Harris, "Hickory Wind" and "Sin City"). He died in '73 from an overdose of tequila and morphine in a now-famous motel near Joshua Tree in Southern California, achieving legendary status after his biker buddies stole his fresh corpse from LAX airport and torched it in the desert (dramatized in the 2003 movie "Grand Theft Parsons" starring Johnny Knoxville). It's all explained here, as well as how being a trust-fund kid in the '60s counterculture proved disastrous for his dreams. — B.B.


Horsehead "Record of the Year" (Emerald City Records)

I thought I'd put in an AC/DC CD when I first heard this. The opening chords of "Different Man" are dead ringers for the twin guitar attack of Australia's loudest musical export. Horsehead is 1970s classic rock in all its time-honored, raised-lighter glory. The honky-tonk swagger of the Rolling Stones, the Southern-fried soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the pop sensibilities of Tom Petty are but some of the arena-rock influences that define the group. The slinky bravado of "Know My Name" struts like the Faces (featuring a blazing saxophone solo from Roger Carroll), while ballads — "Hide Today" and "Say You Suffered" — take their cues from the country rock sound of Gram Parsons. Each song will remind you of something you originally pumped your fist to and sang along with on the radio. Though its members wear their influences on their sleeves, Horsehead makes each inspiration its own. The sound is helped immensely by the stellar production and tight musicianship required in making radio-friendly tunes. Too bad radio wouldn't play this, because if you are a fan of classic rock, Horsehead has made the record of the year. ***— Chris Bopst


Gomez "How We Operate" (ATO Records)

The unexpected, harmonies and dub sounds of this English five-piece has been polished and stripped of the excess that often made it great in the first place. With three of the five singing, and four of them playing more than one instrument, the sonic possibilities seemed endless. This, their fifth studio album, first with ATO records, and most importantly, first with a producer, has put a pop polish on their blues-influenced rock. Gone are most of the keyboard quips and synthesizer tweaks which created the eerie backdrop of their sound, but all is not lost. These talented blokes shine through the polish. The songs are a bit prettier, and certainly more radio friendly. They're even TV friendly; you may have heard them on MTV reality show "Cheyenne" or CBS's "NCIS." But don't hate them because they can sing pretty, this is intelli-pop, and several tracks still have the spunk that will no doubt still shine when unleashed during their live shows. *** — Carrie Nieman

Gomez plays Friday Cheers June 23 at 6 p.m

New American Wing "Self-titled" (New American Wing)

The museum section name is entirely appropriate for a band specializing in precisely mounted bits of artistic design. The percussionless chamber ensemble featuring trumpet, guitar and cello provides an eclectic palette, which guitarist/composer David Raimi uses to create engaging, frequently lyrical miniatures.

While mining Americana territory similar to that of the Tin Hat Trio and any number of Bill Frisell ensembles, NAW uncovers much that is fresh. The pieces seamlessly move through notated and improvised sections with melodic richness and harmonic simplicity. All are originals, with the exception of Paul Motian's "Cosmology," a telling choice very much in line with the band's textured, painterly sound. At best, the result combines the experimental edge of jazz with the natural clarity of folk music. In all, an attractive and intelligent CD, except for the impossible winged millipede on the cover (which is, perhaps, attractive but also biologically and aerodynamically absurd). ****

— Peter McElhinney

New American Wing plays Gallery5 on June 26 at 8 p.m.

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