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The legends live in some new releases

The Baltimore Sun

On the playlist this week, we're looking at new releases by music legends. We also have an amazing anthology by a dynamite '70s quartet of wailing sistas. Unfortunately, not nearly enough people heard them cut loose back in the day.

Willie Nelson, Songbird

After 50 years of making music, Nelson keeps challenging himself. Not one to settle into a groove too long, the country legend has over the years placed his formidable skills in eclectic musical contexts -- from schmaltz-slathered pop to bluesy rock. Not all of the experiments worked, however. Countryman, Nelson's 2005 foray into reggae, was a disaster.

On his new CD, the Red Headed Stranger collaborates with brash garage rocker Ryan Adams and his band, the Cardinals. The result is one of the most inviting albums Nelson has done in a while. The collaboration brings to mind Loretta Lynn's work with Jack White on 2004's stellar Van Lear Rose. As White did with Lynn, Adams surrounds Nelson's lived-in vocals with immediate, muscular arrangements that never overwhelm the legend.

On the surface, Songbird sounds very much like a Ryan Adams record: lots of reverb and loose, dusty instrumentation. But Nelson sounds at ease as he croons the title track, originally done by Fleetwood Mac. The unadorned, country waltz version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is another standout. Along with Solomon Burke's lovely Nashville, Songbird is one of the most affecting country albums in stores right now.

Dionne Warwick, My Friends and Me

I love the music of Dionne Warwick -- have spent entire weekends at home playing nothing but her classic Scepter albums and relishing those Burt Bacharach-Hal David gems: "In Between the Heartaches," "Here I Am," "Any Old Time of Day" and, of course, the hits everybody knows including "Walk On By" and "I Say a Little Prayer." But My Friends and Me, Warwick's first pop album in about seven years, is a dissatisfying effort. As she did on 1998's well-done Dionne Sings Dionne, the pop vet revisits mostly her '60s hits, only this time with a cast of current female artists: Wynonna Judd, Angie Stone, Chante Moore and others. It's the same contrived legend-with-today's-stars formula uber-producer Clive Davis used to revive Santana's career a few years back. But unlike the guitar god on his recent string of guest-laden albums, Warwick is never relegated to the background on hers. However, the synths-based production (overseen by the vocalist's son, Damon Elliott) is thin and dull, adding no warmth to Warwick's huskily rich vocals.

Some of the collaborations are ill-conceived, like Gloria Estefan's hollow warbling on an unimaginative reworking of "Walk On By" or Da Brat's out-of-nowhere rap on an overly subdued version of "The Windows of the World." Kelis (yes, Miss Milkshake) also sounds completely out of her element on the ever-lame "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." The smooth jazz rendition of "Deja Vu," a 1980 Grammy winner for the New Jersey native, is nice, but it doesn't supplant the dreamy original. My Friends and Me isn't a total bust. A few engaging moments spring up here and there. But even despite the loss of some of her vocal range, Warwick can do much better than this.

Nina Simone, Remixed & Re-imagined

The High Priestess of Soul may be gone, but the spirit of her often politically minded music remains as potent as ever. And now with the help of creative DJs, several songs by Simone, who died three years ago at her home in France, have taken on a new life.

On this CD, a strong set of beat makers (Francois K., DJ Logic and others) reconfigure some of the classics the artist recorded for RCA in the late '60s and early '70s. Titles include "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter," "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" and "Go to Hell." Just as the singer-songwriter-pianist meshed jazz, soul, folk and classical, the remixers use a stimulating array of styles to bring Simone's music into today.

The general focus is on the modern club crowd. The floating, chilled-out take of "Here Comes the Sun" is a highlight on an album ablaze with them. Nothing about the remixes feels patched together. It sounds as if Simone went into the studio with these young cats and re-recorded the songs with fresh backing tracks. Although I'm usually not a fan of such projects (Mayfield Remixed, a similar album that came out on Curtis Mayfield last year, is a dire example of the formula), Nina Simone Remixed & Reimagined is flavorful and thoughtfully honors the ground-splitting diva.

The Sisters Love, Give Me Your Love

The nucleus of this mighty quartet started with the Raelets, Ray Charles' famed background singers. But around 1967, the women, including the sorely underrated Merry Clayton, left and signed with A&M; Records as the Sisters Love. (Clayton soon left the group and signed a solo deal.) In 1971, the foursome bolted A&M; for Motown. Although the group underwent a few personnel changes before breaking up in 1973, the Sisters Love managed to release a string of superlative hardcore soul and funk singles that never took off. Over the years, though, the quartet amassed a strong cult following overseas, especially in England. The good folks at the country's Soul Jazz label have done the world a favor and (finally!) released an anthology of the Sisters Love's overlooked output.

Some production touches may sound dated now, but the energy of these cuts remains unrelenting. The Sisters Love delivered full-throttle, rafter-raising gospel harmonies underpinned by pulsing, funk-fried rhythms that should drive any hip-hop DJ bananas. The break in "Give Me Your Love," the group's smoldering 1973 remake of the Curtis Mayfield classic, is ripe for sampling. A let-it-all-go rock energy informed such tracks as the soaring take of the Beatles' "Blackbird" from 1970 and the dramatic "Ha Ha Ha" from 1971. The Sisters Love appeared in the 1973 blaxploitation flick The Mack, wailing "Now Is the Time" in a brief nightclub scene. That urgent funk-rock-gospel mash-up is also included on the 16-song anthology.

Because the group had neither promotional support from its labels nor a gimmick (space get-ups a la Labelle or campy '40s drag like the Pointer Sisters), the Sisters Love drifted into oblivion. But this group is certainly deserving of re-evaluation.

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