Style: R.E.M. gone to seed.
Worldview: "Now it's another weekend lonely at home. / Late-night TV-evangelist drone. / I'm healthy now, but I really don't know if I'll ever be free."
Overall Quality: Even in those rare moments when Jay Farrar isn't pitying himself, he's enunciating like someone who is, making "riding waves of sound" (in "Action") sound more like "rotting waves of sound" and accurately describing Son Volt's music in the process.
Style: World-weary electro-folk.
Cautions: "Come On" (profanity), "Wrap My Head Around That" (casual cursing).
Worldview: "Some think a fancy funeral / would be worth every cent, / but, for every dime and nickel, / there's money better spent. . . . / 'Cause no amount of riches / can bring back what you've lost."
Overall Quality: Williams' latest, mostly successful attempt to strip her private ups and downs (mostly downs) of just enough particulars to make them universal.
Style: Rootsy tales, mostly to or about "hard-luck saints."
Cautions: "Miss Bonnie and Mr. Clyde," "Be Rich," "July Blues" (crude slang).
Worldview: "You got drunk last night. You swear you saw the devil. / Don't you know firewater seeks its own level?"
Overall Quality: Only on "River Fever" do the jaunty narratives and swaggering instrumentation combine for more light than heat, and, frankly, the heat of the others could be hotter.
Style: Bluegrass-folk, bluegrass-jazz, bluegrass-pop.
Worldview: That James Carville and Mary Matalin aren't the only socio-political polar opposites who can put their differences aside and make beautiful music together.
Overall Quality: Ringers aside (a re-keyed "Mandolin Rain," a played-for-laughs "Super Freak"), the revelation is less particular songs (although Skaggs' unearthing of the "Jack-a-Roe" variant "Across the Rocky Mountain" is a pleasant surprise) than the overall near-mesh that these disparate superstars achieve.
Style: Astringent singer-songwriterly folk.
Worldview: "The peaceful valley / just over the mountain, / the peaceful valley / few come to know - / I may never get there / ever in this lifetime, / but sooner or later / it's there I will go" ("Up to the Mountain [MLK Song]").
Overall Quality: Ultimately the stoic pleasures of the music and singing don't quite compensate for lyrics that, for all their craft, often succumb to the sentimental.
The trouble with recordings by veteran acoustic virtuosos like Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby is that they tend to cater to diehard fans while ignoring the public at large-to focus inward instead of out. It's a problem largely avoided on Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby (Legacy) because, as Skaggs and Hornsby come from the opposite ends of just about every spectrum, neither could retreat into his musical comfort zone if the twain were to meet.
Skaggs is a gospel-loving string picker with roots in bluegrass and country, Hornsby a secular-progressive ivory tickler with roots in pop, jazz, and the Grateful Dead. The two are also friends with enough talent to render their friendship audible. The standout serious track is Hornsby's "Mandolin Rain" recast as a minor-key Appalachian ballad. The standout joke is Rick James' "Super Freak" recast as a hoedown. In between they find fertile common ground in the public domain and harmonize better than you might expect.