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The Best of Mountain Stage joins folk music and alternative sounds


Volume Two, Live
Various artists.
Blue Plate Music.

By Deborah A. Levinson

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

Volume Two, Live evokes, capturing the simple, relaxed atmosphere of a folk concert.

"Mountain Stage" is a weekly, two-hour live public radio program featuring music ranging from alternative to Celtic. Stage: Volume Two brings together segments from musicians as musically disparate as Billy Bragg and Delbert McClinton or Robyn Hitchcock and John Prine.

The first track is Michelle Shocked's "God is a Real Estate Developer," from her most recent album, Cap'n Swing. Her voice is clear and strong as always, but the Mountain Stage band is miked too low to be effective. Though this version is not as rousing as the one on Cap'n Swing, it does have a gentle country quality.

John Prine offers "It's a Big Old Goofy World," a sort of children's song based on doing a puzzle about similes. Originally titled "When the World Was Flat as a Pancake, Mona Lisa Was Happy as a Clam," the song winds through silly simile after silly simile, punctuated by the equally silly chorus, "There's a big old goofy man dancing with a big old goofy girl / Ooh, baby, it's a big old goofy world."

John Wesley Harding, who sounds more like Elvis Costello every day, succeeds with "You're No Good." The clever lyrical twists -- like "the love you give, well, it's just a virus -- it wants blood for Dr. Hyde" -- make this one of the best tracks on the CD. Jimmie Dale Gilmore produces a solid track with "These Blues," a joyful blues piece with lyrics and shuffling guitar that recall both Guthries. Sara Hickman, whose gorgeous soprano soars above "Simply," gives a sweet, honest performance of this beautifully nave love song. "So I'll tell you," she warbles, "I've simply fallen for you."

Other well-known performers with folk roots don't fare as well as Prine or Hickman. R.E.M. delivers a bland, disjointed rendition of "Losing My Religion." (Admittedly, it's not all their fault: the mike is too close to the bass, making it sound like a giant rubber band.) Robyn Hitchcock, one of my favorites, plays an uninspired "The Arms of Love," his bland guitar playing matched only by his uncharacteristically lucid -- and therefore boring -- lyrics. And Kathy Mattea's otherwise pretty voice is wasted on "Where've You Been," a light-rock-style song that makes her sound almost exactly like Anne Murray.

Therein lies the problem with The Best of Mountain Stage: Volume Two. With the wealth of tracks they certainly had to choose from, why did they pick the songs they did? I've heard Robyn Hitchcock live and acoustic, and he can play things like "The Arms of Love" asleep. Not to mention that one shouldn't have to resort to watching "MTV Unplugged" to hear R.E.M. sound like one band, not five musicians playing together in the same room. When Stage: Volume Two sticks to "conventional" folk music, it shines, but when it branches out, it sometimes stumbles. Still, as long as "Mountain Stage" is running, there's hope for a Volume Three, and perhaps even a more cohesive record.