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Reviews of CDs by Eva Cassidy, The Amazing Crowns, Peter Bruntnell, Kevin Kinney, plus a Tom Waits tribute album.

Now Hear This

Eva Cassidy, "Time After Time" (Blix Street) — "Time" is a mix of live and studio recordings and is the fifth release of Cassidy's recorded output. I wish I could say there is much more to come because this young woman's vocal magic knocks me out. Blending jazz, folk, blues and pop stylings, and backed only by her guitar or small combos, Cassidy's supple soprano grabs hold of tunes old and new and bathes them in a deceptively serene simplicity. Well-worn chestnuts such as "The Letter" or "Ain't No Sunshine" become Cassidy's own as she effortlessly reinterprets, molds and stretches melody and message in new directions. When this young Maryland singer died of melanoma in 1996 at 33, she had just begun to take her rightful place in the Washington music scene. Her live shows and previous CDs had won acclaim from fellow musicians, fans and critics, and this recently released project is culled from some of the singer's last recordings. Cassidy's voice came directly from a powerful place in the soul and emerged unaffected, strong in its purity. In a pop culture that raises vocal bombast and bellybuttons to glamorous showbiz heights, Cassidy's way with a song holds a special place.

— Ames Arnold

The Amazing Crowns, "Royal" (Time Bomb Recordings) — The Amazing Crowns (formally The Amazing Royal Crowns) have been through a lot as a band. I remember them being sued a short time ago by the neo-swing group Royal Crown Revue over copyright issues involving their name. The adversity seems to have done them well since their sophomore effort, "Royal," is a much stronger release than their debut. Produced by fellow Bostonian Joe Gittleman, of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Amazing Crowns' latest album is also much more polished.

The Crowns play a boisterous and infectious brand of rockabilly music (not your parent's Sun Studio sessions). They take a modern approach, blending the original country/pop sound (the basis for rockabilly), with more timely musical varieties such as punk. They most closely resemble acts like the Reverend Horton Heat and Hi Fi & The Roadburners in style and posture.

"Still Royal" is the album's defiant opening track and with it they exact a bit of revenge on their litigious tormentors: "Royal to the loyal we stay." The opening snub carries with it a powerful backing chorus that sets the tone for the rest of this tenacious album. We go cruising with these four rockabilly rebels as they pick up girls (the dual-meaning "Mr. Fix-It"), work on their cars (to keep them out of the "Chop Shop"), and ponder their lives in the fast lane (the rueful "Flipping Coins"). When the ride comes to an end, "Royal" leaves the passenger with wind-blown hair and a foot that can't stop tapping. An impressive take on American music by a talented group of musicians. The Blasters would be proud.

— Angelo DeFranzo

Peter Bruntnell, "Normal for Bridgewater" (Rykodisc/Slow River) - Peter Bruntnell is a singer-songwriter from South London, but you'd never know it. The guy has swallowed American country rock whole and sent his take on it back across the pond.

He doesn't exactly make the material his own. Bruntnell has no trace of a British accent; I even checked the liner notes to see if Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was singing on one track (he wasn't). Bruntnell's voice, and the presence of Sun Volt's Dave Boquist on fiddle, invite easy comparisons to the U.S. "alt-country" vanguard.

But never mind that the sound is a little derivative - heck, the whole genre is derivative of Gram Parsons. Bruntnell's clear-eyed songwriting is right on target, and his band can handle whatever he throws at them.

"Lay Down This Curse" and "By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix" crank the guitars, the latter with a Hammond organ fattening the sound. The excellent "You Won't Find Me" is populated with hard-luck drinkers stuck in small towns.

It's familiar stuff, but it works. As much as Bruntnell owes to "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and Son Volt's "Trace," he also earns a nice spot next to them on the shelf.

— Dave Renard, The Virginian-Pilot

Kevin Kinney, "The Flower and the Knife" (Capricorn) — Kinney's third solo album is a simple and straightforward acoustic effort that updates a '60s folk style. With his band Drivin'N'Cryin' out of commission, Kinney had songs to cut, so he recruited Warren Haynes to produce this no-frills project. Haynes adds occasional slide guitar, and Edwin McCain, Derek Trucks and John Popper contribute, among others. But this is Kinney's show, and he strides upbeat through 13 songs of self-reflection with a restrained romantic soul. Sometimes Kinney gets a little wordy, but his songs about lessons learned and the endless search are told with a peculiar individual style that works. Most of the tunes are his, including a reworked version of Drivin'N'Cryin's "Scarred But Smarter" and the beautiful ballad "Quittin' Time," but he also includes worthy renditions of two Bob Dylan songs, "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "I Shall Be Released." "Knife" is a labor of love that either strikes a resonant chord with listeners or bores them to death. To these ears, it again proves wonders can be worked with an acoustic guitar, an honest soul and a love for music that's made for the right reasons.

— A.A.

Various Artists, "New Coat of Paint/Songs of Tom Waits" (Manifesto) — Tribute albums have never been among my favorites, and this salute to the great Tom Waits isn't going to change my attitude a lick. There are some brilliant songs among the 14 cuts here, and I was looking forward to giving this a listen since many of the titles are my personal favorites from Waits' 1970s output. But things get off to a flat start with Screamin' Jay Hawkins' read-from-the-lyric-sheet version of "Whistlin' Past the Graveyard," and they don't really pick up for a few songs until Dexter Romweber and Dexterville kick in with "Romeo is Bleeding." Lee Rocker turns in a surprisingly OK version of "New Coat of Paint" and Carla Bozulich takes a tender turn during "On the Nickel." But, overall, Lydia Lunch and the rest of these art rockers are trying to be so darn cool that this effort turns me off.

— A.A.

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