Sometimes you have to look back to move forward. This week's releases are all four-star reviews featuring artists who take old songs and styles and update them with fresh verve and vitality. These oldies don't sound moldy at all.

Groovegrass 101 Groovegrass 101
Groovegrass 101 featuring the Groovegrass Boyz
(Reprise)


Let's see. A track run-down of this CD pulls up old-time pickers like "Wabash Cannonball," "Deep River Blues," and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Is this a coal miner's campfire album? Well, the stickman cowboy on the front cover and the funky cow with red stars for eyes on the back cover certainly help dispel some of the initial feeling that this is a traditional folk and blues record.

And it's not.

Producer/techno traditionalist Scott Rouse pulled together funk king Bootsy Collins with bluegrass legends Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman back in 1993 to lay down these genre-defying tracks. Groovegrass 101 is a disc of mostly traditional songs (and a couple originals) with a kickin' techno and space bass funk background. The result is a swingin' '90s hoedown that merges the best of old-old school with the tricks of modern rock.

Even if you hate country and bluegrass music, this is really great fun. Its energy is infectious; every time I've put this on in my office at work over the past week, somebody has stuck their face in the door with a bobbing head and a smile and asked "what is that? You've just gotta move to it!"

Hear for yourself.

 

Snakefarm Snakefarm
Songs From My Funeral
(RCA)


Take the above concept, spin it 45 degrees and you've got Snakefarm, a duo of vocalist Anna Domino and guitarist/programmer husband Michel Delory.

Whereas Groovegrass updates Americana pickin' 'n' blues music to a techno dance and grin fest, Songs From My Funeral takes 10 traditional folk songs about death and murder, lays them atop throbbing and ambient grooves and completely reconstructs them to fit a modern muse.

Listen close and you're bound to recognize many of these from childhood; who hasn't heard "Tom Dooley" or the 1800s railroad ballad "John Henry"? But Snakefarm takes some brave and beautiful liberties with these classics, and "campfire songs" is not what you'll be thinking as you listen, despite the fact that that's where they originated. Domino's voice has that quietly powerful flavor that made Cowboy Junkies so successful, and her reading of these songs will leave you thinking things like spooky, haunting and strangely moving.

"This Train That I Ride" with its background vocal tension, open synthesizer bass groove and sonic wash of warmth and repetition stands ahead of anything Madonna managed on Ray of Light for airy techno brilliance. And if the words weren't so familiar, you'd probably never even place the classic "(House of the) Rising Sun," which instead of the rock force of the version The Animals made famous, prefers to stick with a somber recitation of the lyrics over an appropriately dirgelike rhythm and splashes of Western wah-wah guitars. It's a coolly disturbing take.

It's amazing, really, to look at the genesis of these songs, and then to hear how immediate and modern Snakefarm makes them. There's no feeling at all that these are dusty, cautionary campfire ballads. Yet "Pretty Horses" was a lullaby sung to a master's child by a slave who must leave her own child to cry alone, "Rising Sun" is an 18th century bordello lament, "Tom Dooley" is about the hanging of a murderer in 1868 and "This Train That I Ride," one of the disc's most groovin' rewrites, is about the early conquering of the American frontier.

Snakefarm's gamble definitely paid off. Songs From My Funeral acts as both a tribute to America's past and an ethereally danceable new work of art to live on in its future.

 

Colin James  
Colin James and the Little Big Band II
(Elektra)
  ½


The follow up to James' first jump-blues Little Big Band album of 1993 is a non-stop shoulder-shaker that features songs from Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, Jimmy Wilson, Cab Calloway and Louis Prima. And maybe, thanks to recent swing hits by Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Squirrel Nut Zippers, the pop world is more ready for James' classic orchestral mix of swing and electric guitar.

Certainly this is a disc that anyone who likes a walking blues bass and a spray of sassy horns should hear. James shares many common traits with Setzer, from his melding of electric guitar and swing to his vocal style a '50s-ish "Shake, Rattle & Roll" sort of tenor. He and his band storm the room with trumpet, sax, piano and guitar solos on many of these songs, and even a drum break on Calloway's "C'mon With The C'mon." And his take on Charles familiar cajun shaker "Mary Anne" perfectly marries taut blues guitar solos to a pristine piano and horn rhythm bed.

This is a rare "party" album that both teens and grandparents can appreciate.