Rory Block

A grad student of the hard-knocks school of Delta blues, Block is an anomaly: a female singer-guitarist of traditional blues. Sure, there are some blues shouters out Chicago way, but those ladies, if they play an instrument, usually pound a piano. And while Bonnie Raitt plays a mean slide guitar, we don't count her since she won all those Grammies. Blues disciples have to toil in obscurity.

Block has done that all right. Daughter of a Manhattan leather craftsman, she grew up emulating such old blues-men as Son House, Skip James, Tommy Johnson and the Reverend Gary Davis. She became a whiz at acoustic blues guitar picking, as she shows on true-to-the-roots versions of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" and Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues." Block also spins out Bessie Smith's "Do Your Duty" and "Weeping Willow Blues."

This album, her fifth in 10 years, also contains five original Block tunes, the best of which are the hound-dog blues of "Ain't No Shame," Block's strongest vocal, and the gospelly "Got to Shine," with Michael Mugrage on electric guitar, Richard Bell and Vinnie Martucci on electric pianos and Peter "Mudcat" Ruth on harmonica.

If you like music steeped in tradition and genuine feeling, this is your woman. (Rounder)

Violent Femmes

True to their strange name, the Violent Femmes have charted a career full of surprises and contrasts. In 1983, an era of electrified new wave, the debut LP of the Femmes introduced a startling mix of square, camp-fire folk with rude rock attitude. Since then, the Milwaukee trio has made a series of teasing changes.

Lead singer Gordon Gano cut back on sex-charged lyrics in favor of evangelical Christian messages. Later the band traded its prickly bare-bones accompaniment for fancy production. After Violent Femmes 3 in 1989, the band members pursued solo projects and the Femmes' future looked fatal.

Not so. This album by the reunited group revives its old, edgy style, with the Femmes pumping electrified rock energy into acoustic instruments. The Femmes even include three newly recorded 1983 songs that mesh nicely with the 1991 material.

Gano musters up his old charm, a charismatic cross between the sensitive class nerd and the coolest kid in town. His off-kilter vocals put an alluringly demented twist on the 1983 Culture Club hit "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." Though he avoids direct allusions to religion these days, he often seems to be confessing a sinful secret. And even the peppiest melodies hide cutting comments about human nature. One bright tune, "Out the Window," ponders suicide, implying that all adults throw their lives away anyway. Despite the erratic past, the Femmes still sound fresh—in every sense of the word. (Slash/Reprise)

Davis Daniel

Daniel earns some respect just for including, on his debut album, a version of "Love Me," the Lieber-Stoller ballad that is one of those tunes Elvis Presley owned cold.

But the Nebraska-Colorado-raised Daniel, 30, does more than tempt invidious comparison. Not only is his "Love Me" a masterpiece of apparently soon-to-be-unrequited affection, Daniel surrounds that track with nine exemplary modern country songs.

Most of them concern winding down from romance—"I Ain't the One," "Still Got a Crush on You"—and Daniel laments in a voice that combines the mellow of Randy Travis with the despair of George Jones. When he sings the opening lines of Don White's "Across the Room to You"—"I've been to Texas/I've been to Spain"—and then compares the geographical distances traveled to the emotional gap between himself and the aspiring Ms. Ex, it brings an empathetic tear to your eye. (PolyGram)

  • Contributors:
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Michael Small,
  • Ralph Novak.