If a Tree Falls - Various Artists (Earthbeat!): What this compilation lacks in political subtlety it more than makes up for in good music, variety, and humor. From spoken-word pieces to slick '90s pop, it's all here to raise funds to save trees. The CD strikes an unusual balance that keeps it interesting and listenable - from coproducer Darryl Cherney's parodic "You Can't Clear Cut Your Way to Heaven" to Hank Williams Jr.'s heavy-handed "Kiss Mother Nature Goodbye," Alice Di Micele's simply stunning "Defend the Earth," and Joanne Rand's glossy but equally captivating "Never Alone."
- Jef Scoville
Donovan: Sutras (American): The '60s troubadour is back with his first new recording in more than two decades in a comeback attempt produced by Rick Rubin, who engineered a similar return to glory for Johnny Cash. His distinctive voice is shown to great effect in the beautifully spare production, which uses acoustic backing by Benmont Trench (Tom Petty), Dave Navarro (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and violinist Nigel Kennedy. The 14 original songs, many revealing Celtic influences, are spiritual in nature, with several using ancient Chinese, Indian, and Celtic texts for their lyrics.
- Frank Scheck
Michael Daugherty - Metropolis Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Zinman (Argo): New composers struggling to get their work noticed might take a cue from Michael Daugherty, whose new piece uses an icon of popular culture, Superman, for its inspiration. His eclectic five-movement symphony, invoking various aspects of the Superman legend (Lois Lane, the impish villain Mxyzptik, the planet Krypton) is perhaps more interesting as a gimmick than as a piece of music, but it is formally rigorous, undeniably inventive, and sometimes amusing. The audacious instrumentation (referee whistles, sirens, cowbells, etc.) adds to the effect. A second piece on the album, "Bizarro" (named after Superman's mutant clone), is a thunderous nine-minute cacophony of percussion and brass.
- Frank Scheck
Debbie Davies - I Got That Feeling (Blind Pig): Bonnie Raitt may sell more records and get the Grammys, but Debbie Davies is a real contender, a stinging blues guitarist and vocalist who cut her chops with the legendary Albert Collins. Her third solo release finds her encompassing a variety of styles with skill, feeling, and raw power, ranging from slow grooves ("Lucky in Love") to high-speed workouts ("Talk to Me Baby"). The title track, in which she is accompanied by label-mate Coco Montoya on guitar, is a classic Collins roof-raiser.
- Frank Scheck
Roy Haynes - True or False (Evidence): Veteran drummer Roy Haynes and his trio, all of whom are at least 30 years his junior, ignite a firestorm of hard-swinging jazz with nine excellent tracks. Tenorist Ralph Moore, pianist David Kikoski, and bassist Ed Howard have little choice except to swing with Haynes's driving tempo. The closest thing to a ballad is Moore's melodic opening statement on "In a Sentimental Mood," before he turns it into a medium tempo romp. If you like your jazz hard and fast, Haynes and crew deliver, playing works by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Chick Corea.
- Dick Bogle
Big House - Big House (MCA Records): This group may come from Bakersfield, Calif., home of country legends Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but the truth is, Big House is about as country as Nine Inch Nails. Nevertheless, their hybrid sound of acoustic, blues, and Southern rock stands on its own. Tunes like "Amarillo" sound uncannily close to the Eagles from the 1970s. This CD is worth picking up if your collection already includes Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or any other Southern-fried rock. But don't buy it expecting to hear country - because it's not.
- Skip Thurman