Transcendental Blues
E-Squared Records/Artemis Records

With a voice that anchors him firmly in the blue-collar voice of backroads America, Steve Earle continues to deliver as a tough and twangy rebel rocker, the last of the hard-core troubadours. While it doesn't hold a candle to last year's critically acclaimed bluegrass tour de force, The Mountain, Earle's latest effort is still an impressive outing. A little less homespun and a whole lot louder, Transcendental Blues finds Earle combining the rockin' vibe and energy level of I Feel Alright with the stylistic schizophrenia of El Corazón. The result is a multi-dimensional record with some truly sophisticated moments.

"The Galway Girl" and "Steve's Last Ramble" draw heavily on a Celtic sound. The gentle and convincing "I Can Wait" has a Beatlesque pop structure while "All My Life" blends some punk elements and some Rolling Stones. "Until the Day I Die" is the only bluegrass number, with veterans Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott lending a hand.

"When I Fall" is the now mandatory Steve Earle duet track, this time around with the vocal talents of sister Stacey Earle. The title track is semi-trippy and kinda psychedelic, with lots of mini-moog and reverb. The album closer, "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," is a haunting portrait of a death row inmate, very much in the style of "Ellis Unit One."

As always, production by the Twangtrust is fantastic and the sound is remarkable. Though this album lacks much of Earle's trademark storytelling, it's still a fine piece of work. True, the songs could be a bit better. But Earle not at his best is still way better than most. -Chris Webb

High As Hell
TVT Records

Awwww yeah! Nashville Pussy are back! On their sophomore effort, High As Hell, Lexington's Blaine Cartwright and company serve up a platter hotter'n steamier than the grits mawmaw used to make.

After the success of their Grammy-nominated debut, Let Them Eat Pussy, Nashville Pussy deliver another rock-solid effort. High As Hell shows why the trade publication CMJ recently referred to them as "the greatest rock and roll band in America today."

Not surprisingly, the second disc doesn't depart stylistically from the first disc at all. From the engine-revving which kicks off the first track, "Struttin' Cock," to the boot-stompin' closer, "Drive," Nashville Pussy offer a Jim Beam-fueled chainsaw hayride, which might best be described as "R.O.C.K. in the C.S.A."

The twelve songs here, for the most part, are variations on a theme. The wicked lampooning of virtually every Southern stereotype, coupled with pedal-to-the-metal rock n' roll works perfectly. Virtually every imaginable vice is extolled here, be it sex: "Struttin' Cock," and "Piece of Ass"; drugs: "She's Got the Drugs" and "High as Hell"; or guns: "Shoot First and Run Like Hell" along with "Wrong Side of a Gun."

With one of the scariest song titles in history, "Blowjob From a Rattlesnake" along with a raucous rendition of Rose Tattoo's "Rock 'n' Roll Outlaw," High As Hell proves Nashville Pussy are no one-hit wonders. SAAAAA-LUUUUUUUTE! -Matt Dacey

Elektra Records

Phish's recorded output initially favored listeners who like space jams, as befits a group that has attracted those who used to wander around in the wake of the Grateful Dead's summer tours. Unfortunately, the throng who fill up parking lots before Phish concerts have apparently only purchased one album copy per vanload. Though the group (and certainly the fans) might deny it, Phish is now recording shorter songs with less inherent improvisation. It seems like a modest turn toward commercial pragmatism. If you want the tunes, buy the album; if you want to hear them stretched out, go catch a show. The devoted will do whatever they always do, but the casual fans might just fork over money twice.

That isn't such a bad deal. It's true that since the Dead had seven members, it was large enough to offer more of the variety of a community, while Phish's quartet is sometimes just [Trey] Anastasio's chosen direction plus a skilled, open-minded threesome. But the current crop of tunes are sprightly, and both lyrics and arrangements have their share of witty bon mots. There are some moments that are obvious take-off points for jamming, and they can seem a bit clunky amid the streamlined pace. At such times, Phish sounds more than ever like a Grateful Dead clone band. There's the drop-down organ wash signifying daybreak, the hushed-strut percussion that harks back to "Shakedown Street," the vocal trickery that doubles up on echo to give the listener an effect like being in a stadium and breathing second-hand smoke from controlled substances. Fortunately, such "Dead lite" guideposts don't significantly interfere with the collection's bucolic-but-bouncy vibe. This is fine picnic music, whether or not your tailgate is parked next to a tie-dyed shirt booth. -T.E. Lyons