Various Artists (Arista 8669)
No matter how much the liner notes might insist that the all-star Grateful Dead tribute album, "Deadicated," was assembled solely to help the Rainforest Action Network, the real appeal for many of these artists must have been the excuse to cut a few Dead-perfect covers. Which is what most of them did, from Dwight Yoakam's blushingly faithful "Truckin' " to Los Lobos' earnest imitation of "Bertha." Frankly, though, the album's most interesting moments occur when the performers step away from the originals, whether through a reading as radically different as Burning Spear's "Estimated Prophet" or as subtly refined as Lyle Lovett's treatment of "Friend of the Devil."
CHILL OF AN EARLY FALL
George Strait (MCA 10204)
There's nothing wrong with trying to keep up with the times, but after a few spins of "Chill of an Early Fall," it's hard not to wish that George Strait hadn't stuck a little closer to the tried-and-true. As much as slick items like "I Know Me" or the title tune try to push him in the direction of Garth Brooks' pop-savvy sound, Strait is ill-suited to the move. His dry, deadpan delivery adds little to the lyrics, while the melodies leave scant room for Strait to show off his sense of swing. Besides, anyone who sings "Home In San Antone" or "Milk Cow Blues" this well doesn't need his sound updated.
Bulletboys (Warner Bros. 26168)
Even hard-core Van Halen fans have to admit that the Bulletboys do a pretty mean impression of their favorite band, from singer Marq Torien's David Lee Roth smirk to the Edward Van Halen-style virtuosity of guitarist Mick Sweda. Nonetheless, "Freakshow," the Bulletboys' second album, stands as proof that imitation is the sincerest form of rip-off. It isn't as if the group has no ideas of its own -- remaking Tom Waits' "Hang On St. Christopher" as hard-rock hash was pure (if twisted) genius -- but without a credible identity to hang them on, the Bulletboys end up shooting blanks.
Main Source (Wild Pitch 2004)
"Positivity" may emphasize the spiritual strength and inner peace possible through Afro-centric self-determination, but that doesn't mean it's just peace-and-love platitudes. Positivity also includes a certain amount of anger, and few acts express it as eloquently as Main Source does on "Breaking Atoms." Because Main Source understands how to compliment the depth of its rhymes by stressing the complexity of its music, these raps are able to address topics as personal as the misfiring relationship described in "Looking At the Front Door" or as politically charged as the bitter "Just a Friendly Game of Baseball." All of which makes "Breaking Atoms" a truly explosive debut.