Various Artists

Alternative rockers have sure been charitable lately. Hot on the heels of the 21 philanthropic acts that contributed to MOM: Music for Our Mother Ocean (Surfdog/Interscope), R.E.M., Soul Asylum, the Smashing Pumpkins and other top rockers have united to honor paraplegic singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt and to raise funds for the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which provides financial aid to musicians with medical problems. The first Sweet Relief installment, released in 1993, benefited singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who duets with Chesnutt on this album.

Chesnutt, who was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident 13 years ago, can certainly use the support. But as a relative unknown, he should be careful whose company he keeps—at least on disc. Although he's an evocative lyricist, capable of balancing touching pleas ("Withering") with clever wordplay ("Board games are boring/ May they rot on the shelf"), Chesnutt is not as distinctive a writer as Williams. His songs are sometimes overwhelmed by such superstar quirks as the Pumpkins' chromatic tones and Indigo Girls' slightly dissonant singing. But he does inspire some revelatory turns, such as Madonna's understated harmony vocal, a fitting complement to the grizzled lead provided by her brother-in-law, folk rocker Joe Henry, on "Guilty By Association." And "Gravity of the Situation" actually moves Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker to drop his sometimes garbled, histrionic delivery and enunciate. Now that's sweet relief. (Columbia)

The Low and Sweet Orchestra

There are so many bands out there trying to out-grunge one another, it's nice to see this Los Angeles-based septet succeed with a less abrasive, more personable musical blend. Picture a melding of Pearl Jam's seldom seen folky side and the Pogues' Celtic bounce, and you get the idea.

This eclectic group, which includes guitarist Zander Schloss, formerly of the punk group Circle Jerks, and Dermot Mulroney, an actor (Copycat) and classically trained cellist, has the sort of homespun charm you'd find in a local pub band. Each tune intoxicates, whether it's an old-fashioned drinking song ("A Dog Came in the Barroom") or the melancholy violin-and-harmonica wail of "Identified, Detained and Inspected." Consider the Low and Sweet Orchestra the perfect alternative to alternative rock. (Interscope)

Marcus Printup

The least publicized member of the troika of young trumpeters championed by jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis (the other two are Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton), Printup, 29, may be the most talented of the trio. Few twentysomething jazz composers can come up with anything as memorable as "Eclipse," a limber, sweet-and-sour strut, or the languorously bluesy "Soulful J," written for the album's pianist Marcus Roberts. And listen to Printup's improvisations: Behind his notes lie intelligence, a sense of humor and, rarer still, a palpable generosity of spirit.

Printup has surrounded himself with some winning accompanists. Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, 20, plays with assurance, wit and passion. And 19-year-old Jason Marsalis, youngest of the Marsalis brothers, is a drummer with an unusually rich sonic palette. As for Roberts, at 33 the album's elder statesman, he has reined in a tendency toward frenzied overplaying to become simply the best young pianist in jazz. (Blue Note)

Suzy Bogguss

Welcome back, Suzy! Actually, Ms. Bogguss wasn't all that far gone. She was off having a son, Ben, now 16 months, and tending (literally) her garden in the greater Nashville area, where she lives with her husband, songwriter Doug Crider. In 1994 she released a memorable duet album with Chet Atkins, but this is Bogguss's first full solo album in three years, so the question is: Did she lose anything during her semi-hiatus? The answer is an emphatic no. Bogguss sounds as bright and lively as ever, and her uncommonly thoughtful approach to country music seems unsullied.

For example, "She Said, He Heard," which Bogguss cowrote with Don Schlitz, is a clever take on the difficulty of communication: "He looked at her like she was speakin' Chinese with some of the letters left out/ Try as he may, he just didn't know what she was talking about."

Bogguss has said she wanted this to be a record to drive to, and the title track, which she wrote with Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is the ignition switch. It leads to quite a trip, winding up with "Far and Away," written by Bogguss and Crider, and focusing on a failed relationship. However else her maternity sabbatical may have changed her, it obviously didn't affect Bogguss's willingness to take on challenges or her ability to cope with them. (Capitol Nashville)

>Steve Earle

JAILHOUSE DÉJÀ BLUES

When country rocker Steve Earle performed before some 300 inmates at the minimum-to-medium-security Cold Creek Correctional Facility in Henning, Tenn., in June, he got a chilling sense of having been there, done that. Earle's promising career (launched by his heralded 1986 major-label debut album, Guitar Town) was nearly destroyed by a two-decades-long struggle with heroin and cocaine, and in 1994 he served two months of an 11-month sentence in the Blackwood Detention Center in Nashville for possession of heroin. Still on parole until November, Earle, who underwent a detox program in jail, is now touring to promote his most recent release, the critically lauded album I Feel Alright (E-Squared/Warner Bros.). At 41, clean at last and single again (he recently filed for divorce from his sixth wife, Lou-Anne), Earle taped his two Cold Creek concerts for an MTV special that begins airing this week. Though he felt an instant rapport with his captive audience, the Virginia-born, Texas-bred Earle, who lives in a Nashville suburb, says the experience, part of his parole agreement, was unnerving: "I thought someone was going to lock me up again."

How did returning to prison feel?

People who are locked up are an appreciative audience. But I had a lot of gratitude for being on the end of the microphone I was on. I don't like being in places where they lock the doors behind me. I've become allergic to it. I was glad to get outta there.

Could you have stopped using drugs without going to jail?

I was going to die. I was physically restrained from using long enough so that the fog cleared. I would suggest to anyone else that they go to the Betty Ford Center. I could have, I just wouldn't, so I had to get locked up. I didn't think there was anything that could stop me [from using]. Like most junkies, I thought I was God.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Tony Scherman,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Andrew Abrahams.