Latest releases reviewed

VARIOUS ARTISTS Sail Away - The Songs of Randy Newman Sugar Hill Records **

Tribute records can be a mixed blessing. Here we have a bunch of esteemed country/ folk acts paying homage to one of America's leading songwriters. So the songs are assured. Not a dud in sight. But something is missing. Randy Newman's work operates on many levels. On the surface they can be sheer entertainment, full of enthralling melody and craft, but scratch a little and the edginess that is the hallmark of his work becomes apparent. Unfortunately, that's not always the case here. Tim O'Brien's version of the title track has none of its sardonic tone, Sonny Landreth's Louisiana, despite being very topical once again, contains none of the anger of the original; ditto Steve Earle's over-complex take on Rednecks. Indeed, the best track is one shorn of vocals: Bela Fleck's simple but haunting Burn On. Perhaps the only one who really gets inside Newman's work is Newman himself.

Joe Breen

GINA VILLALOBOS Miles Away Laughing Outlaw Records ****

Another good reason to head down to the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots festival this weekend is to see this promising new American singer-songwriter. Gina Villalobos has real muscle in her songs and performance, and there is a lovely endearing sense of twang underlying the power chords, while her coarse, stretched vocals - redolent of the rasping Bonnie Tyler in tone if not effect - wrestle the emotion out of songs of life and love on the road. As she sings on the memorable Hard Enough: "I know I'm hard enough/but I feel my heart too much . . . " There is a restlessness to Villalobos's passionate songs, but they are driven hard by her excellent band. Impressive.

Joe Breen

SETH LAKEMAN Freedom Fields Gael Linn ***

With his star in the ascendant, Seth Lakeman was probably wise to capitalise on the success of his second CD, the Mercury-nominated Kitty Jay. And while he evidently didn't countenance any syndrome of the difficult third album kind, Freedom Fields labours under a distinctly singular tone, which Lakeman revisits again - and again. There are intricate arrangements by the score here, with Benji Kirkpatrick's bouzouki making its own particularly visceral mark on The Colliers, and Lakeman's songwriting is still at home with tales of errant knights, mysterious shipwrecks and republicans fighting the good fight. But he chooses to corral his own vocals between such a narrow guage that his emotional potential is sucker punched at every turn. Gift-wrapped baubles abound, but few stand the scrutiny of (repeated) close encounters.

Siobhán Long