That Merle Haggard made an album this laid back and good natured without sounding slack is almost as amazing as his having made it while battling lung cancer. He sounds neither unhealthy nor bitter as he waltzes (literally on the hilarious "Mexican Bands") through practically every variation of the country-jazz he's now spent over 40 years doing better than anyone else. Most amazing of all, he wrote almost every song, including the title cut, which goes, "I believe Jesus is God and a pig is just ham."
It's somehow fitting that the original Space Cowboy should've recorded this album at George Lucas' Skywalker Studios. But the cosmic connection ends there: These 10 songs, all 32 minutes of them, comprise the most terrestrial-sounding album of Miller's career. If the glossy cool of his undiminished singing and guitar tone gives these (mostly) classic blues an ethereal patina, the fat-bottomed groove of his rhythm section pounds their stakes deep. And on half the songs the guest singing of the ex-Checkmate Sonny Charles strips the patina right off.
If this album's humorously generic title proves that the 77-year-old Willie Nelson hasn't lost his sense of humor, its contents prove that he's been working on his sense of gravitas. It may have been producer T-Bone Burnett's idea to include "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," "Satisfied Mind," "I Am a Pilgrim," "House of Gold," and "Nobody's Fault but Mine," but it's Nelson who steps to the mic and delivers their lyrics with as straight a face as he delivers those of "Drinking Champagne" and "Pistol Packin' Mama."
Despite three top-10 albums and five top-40 singles, the Gallagher brothers and their various supporting casts weren't nearly as big stateside as they were in their native England, where they were only the biggest band since the Beatles. Curious Yanks should bypass this overview's slimmer editions and pony up for the box-less for its bound lyric booklet than for its July 2009 live disc (rated PG-13 for intermittent, between-song language), in which a fanatical festival crowd inspires the Gallaghers to go out with a bang.
We Walk This Road (Warner Bros.), the new album by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, begins with a gospel field recording and ends with a song called "Salvation." That it sometimes seems less than the sum of its parts is due mainly to its parts' being pretty great on their own. Sampled Blind Willie Johnson "Segues" link songs by Peter Case ("I Still Belong to Jesus"), Bob Dylan ("Shot of Love"), and spirituals updated by Randolph, producer T-Bone Burnett, and Tonio K. ("Traveling Shoes," "If I Had My Way").
What ultimately makes the album seem greater than the sum of its parts anyway is the inclusion of lesser-known songs by Prince ("Walk Don't Walk") and John Lennon ("I Don't Want to Be a Soldier Mama") and the way Randolph and family (and guests Leon Russell and Ben Harper) find within them more chiliastic blues, funk, and soul than anyone else-the composers probably included-had ever suspected was there.