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National Antiseptic
James Mathus & His Knockdown Society
Mammoth Records

It's hard to really get dirty with a vintage jazz and swing band. You can be naughty, sultry, hot and provocative, but the closest swing music will ever get to "dirty" is flashed underpants as a jitterbugger bugs over her partner's head. James Mathus has grown too experienced for these innocent flirtations, and the new album with his Knockdown Society shakes the dust out of his pants like a sailor home on leave.

Blending the best of Southern home-style -- gospel, Tex-Mex, Southern rock, R&B, Delta dirges and a hint of bluegrass -- with bold and brassy Dixieland, strutting Chicago- and Texas-style blues, Mathus spoons only the cream from his mixed bag of influences. His casually masculine tenor playfully dishes out intelligent lyrics over perfectly sparse arrangements. Mathus's guitar sings, the band is tight, and the music has heart. The National Antiseptic recording sessions must have been one long party, and the laid-back sound of musicians playing for the fun of it gives the album an honest, refreshing sound not often heard in this Top 40 wasteland.

A must first buy of 2002 for any throwback blues lover.

-- Kristen Sherwood

Brahms & Stravinsky Violin Concertos, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Marriner
Hilary Hahn
Sony Music

Hilary Hahn has given us a recording for the ages. The 21-year-old violinist uses her marvelous technique and luscious, sweet tone to produce some of the most vibrant, energized and moving playing you are ever likely to hear.

Aligned with Brahms' dramatic orchestral introduction, Hahn launches into his concerto's first passages with vigor. Then, as her arpeggios lead to the music's first inward statement, her sound becomes increasingly tender and loving, as though her violin is expressing the sound of a heart opening in song. This sense of intimacy increases in the work's middle Adagio, Hahn's gorgeous tone growing rounder and more intense as Brahms moves deeper into his emotional core.

Hahn's success is due in no small part to her timing. There is no enervating lingering, as in the recent EMI release by the silvery-toned Kyung-Wha Chung (with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic). Jascha Heifetz's stunning speed and breathtaking technique (with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony) on the famed 1955 RCA Living Stereo recording remain unequalled, but in their place Hahn offers an irresistible beauty in tone and phrasing.

The Stravinsky receives equally wonderful treatment. The first movement toccata bubbles along whimsically; the second aria is marked by a lyricism and pathos that make the joyous final capriccio all the more fetching. Maxim Vengerov (with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony) plays the outer movements significantly slower, seeming almost leaden alongside Hahn's light-fingered, jaunty grace.

Neville Marriner's conducting, although far from outstanding, allows Hahn the space she needs to achieve greatness. While Sony doesn't offer the tonal richness, soundstage width, and natural balance of the 46-year-old RCA Living Stereo wonder (recorded with only two mikes), it offers far more color (and less reverb) than EMI's outing with Chung and Rattle. On a scale of 1 to 10: a triumphant 10.

-- Jason Serinus

The Final Studio Recordings Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn
American Recording Co.

When I discovered the final recordings of the late, great master of Qawwali (a Sufi devotional music characterized by ecstatic vocal displays, often transmitting the poetry of Rumi), I was both worried and excited. The 300-pound Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, famous for epic concerts before multitudes during which he sat surrounded by musicians, was, until his recent death, a living legend deserving of real tribute. Still, I balked: Would this be another global lite-techno version of his work?

Luckily, they got the right producer for this job: Bob Rock. After recording for Run DMC and Slayer, Mr. Rock emerged from left field at the helm of the best Johnny Cash albums in years, revealing the musical purism that had guided him all along. Born out of love for clear sound, his work with Cash allowed the old man's voice to resonate deeply, often with the simple accompaniment of one acoustic guitar.

The results of Rock's collaboration with the Pakistani master are, like the black-and-white photos on the album's cover, impressively stark and beautiful. Turns out, fat tabla beats, hand claps, backup singers and round harmonium are the only accompaniments Nusrat needed. "Pooja Karoonga Teri Yar," for one, rocks harder than any of what passes for punk these days, except it's rooted in a spiritual groove as deep and rutted as an Islamabad donkey trail. The ecstasy kids should poke their heads out of the rave tent and hear this stuff. Another Rock album, recorded after Nusrat's death, features his nephew Rahat, the back-up singer whose tenor pushes the envelope of caterwauling too far. Skip it. Instead, if you're interested in Quawwali, first find Nusrat's folky and accessible Devotionals and Love Songs. Once you have absorbed its jasmine-scented strains, you'll be ready to give this collection a chance.

-- Paul Wilson

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