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Music Reviews

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January 3, 1996

Me and Frank

John MoheadJohn Mohead, Lula City Limits (Okra-Tone/Rounder 1995) - Lula City Limits is the debut release from 32-year-old singer/songwriter John Mohead. Mohead, a former Nashville songwriter, combines country lyricism with rock and blues influences to paint honest portraits of life and love in his Mississippi Delta homeland.

Mohead, who cites Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris as musical influences, grew up among the juke joints, honkytonks, cafe and roadside music halls of Delta Country. He was raised on the Mohead family plantation in Lula, Mississippi, but eventually relocated to Nashville.

After initial success in Nashville, the studio asked him to tour the West Coast. Mohead recalls, "I just said 'I'm not doing it, I'm not going.' And I just blew the whole thing off, so that was the end of my career with RCI. I guess I just wasn't ready."

Returning to Delta country, John ran the "Cotton Exchange" bar in Clarksdale, Mississippi, located on historic Highway 61. After 1994's Great Ice Storm devastated the local pecan orchards, Mohead returned full-time to music.

John MoheadMohead contributes all of the vocals and guitar work on Lula City Limits, and is joined by friends, Forrest Parker on bass, Trey Monte on drums, and Fish Michie on piano. While Mohead includes slower, bluesy numbers such as "Me and Frank," his main forte is countrified rock.

For example, "Evangelene" is reminiscent of Ry Cooder's late 70s work (which was Ry's most accessible period). The highlight of the album is "Mexican Getaway," a smooth rocker with overtones of Lowell George's solo release.

Lula City Limits is the inaugural release from Okra-Tone Records, the companion label to Rooster Blues Records of Clarksdale, Mississippi (both nationally distributed by Rounder Records). Rounder has unparalleled A & R people, and Mohead is another fine catch. With his mix of acoustic and electric, country and blues, Mohead is a true Delta craftsman.

Joan ArmatradingJoan Armatrading, What's Inside (RCA Victor 1995) - Acclaimed singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading makes her RCA Victor debut with What's Inside. With a sound that ranges from spare folk to sophisticated pop - an apt blend for a performer born under palms of the West Indies and raised beneath the smokestacks of Birmingham, England, Armatrading has released one of her best albums in years.

Now 14 albums into her career, Armatrading achieved her greatest fame in the early 80s with such releases as Me, Myself, I (1980) and Walk Under Ladders (1981).

Armatrading specializes in intimate cuts (whether jazz-tinged, reggae-flavored, or rich and soulful), and feels that What's Inside is one of her most personal albums.

The ballad "Trouble," for example, was written especially for her mother, while "Shapes and Sizes" was written after Armatrading heard radio listeners phoning in to eulogize the recently-deceased host. With a spare arrangement sweetened by the Kronos Quartet, Armatrading softly reminds us that love comes in all shapes and sizes, and that we shouldn't wait until it's too late to say it.

On What's Inside, Armatrading (who handles lead guitar and lead vocal work) recruited such musicians as Rolling Stones' bassist Darryl Jones, keyboardist Benmont Tench (from the Heartbreakers), drummer Manu Katche (who has worked with Sting), and bassist Tony Levin (known for his work with Peter Gabriel).

After self-producing her last four albums, Armatrading also enlisted assistance from co-producer David Tickle, who has previously worked with Signman (er, "Prince"), 4 Non Blondes, and Deborah Harry.

My favorite tracks are the soulful "Recommend by Love," and the charming "Can't Stop Loving You." Both tracks have lots of radio potential, and should help steer Armatrading back toward the high road.

After 20 years, Armatrading has a devoted corps of fans who buy her albums. And that's what makes for a long and successful career as a musician. If you haven't tried Armatrading lately, get What's Inside.

Only in L.A. -- A recent letter to the editor of the L.A. Time's "Calendar" section showed what's different about Southern Californians. According to the author, "I wonder what it feels like to be cooked to death by the sun. That's what happened to hundreds of butterflies while waiting for the cameras to roll for a British washing-machine commercial.

"What is a person with that kind of insensitivity to living creatures doing leading a film association? They were living, feeling creatures, quite possibly, with as much right to life as she. Such cruelty should not be a part of any kind of filmmaking . . . or life."

-- Randy Krbechek

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