Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning (Warner Bros./ Nonesuch): These two comfortable collaborators stole off to recording studios across a seven-year span and notched a dozen warm duets. The country diva's familiar twang entwines with the scuffed-boot vocals of the Scottish-born fingerpicker who owned the '80s with Dire Straits. Knopfler, post-Straits, has paired with the likes of Van Morrison and James Taylor. Harris, a Grammy-winner in four different decades, joined Neil Young on last year's "Prairie Wind" and boosted the hit bluegrass soundtrack "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Great stuff, all. But with such dulcet tracks as "Rollin' On" and the Sept. 11-inspired "If this is Goodbye," this album is truly the sweet fruit of a remarkable musical marriage. Grade: A
- Clayton Collins
Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam (J Records):The avocado on the album cover is an arresting image, but a puzzling one. Is Pearl Jam alluding to an artistic ripening on this, their eighth album? While the Seattle rockers are as hardcore as an avocado pit on the first five tracks - especially on "World Wide Suicide," a ragged rage rant against war - the album's virtue is its adrenalized fervor rather than its tunefulness. Little here is hummable, memorable, or ineffable, and the twin-guitar riffage seems claustrophobic and contained when it should sound widescreen and open. The band is at its best when it slows down a little on "Gone," the album's closest approximation of an anthem, which harnesses Eddie Vedder's wounded-dog howl to haunting effect. Grade: C+
- Stephen Humphries
Neil Young - Living With War (Reprise) and Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome (Sony): Neil Young wants to end the war and impeach the president while the Boss just wants to hootenanny, with a too-ri-aa and a fol-de-diddle-di. Apparently when you're a musical legend you can do whatever you want, as these two vanity projects attest. Mr. Young has never been shy about expressing himself politically, with protest songs such as Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth" and the powerful Kent State anthem "Ohio" already on his résumé. Both songs were tuneful and radio-friendly, which can't be said for any of the tracks on his hastily made "metal protest record." Trite lyrics, leaden playing, and screechy, preachy vocals sabotage any chance his messages might have to persuade. Neil's heart may be in the right (or left) place on this project, but his art is missing in action. (The album is being streamed free of charge at neilyoung.com.) Grade: D
Springsteen's approach is also passionate, but in a much more upbeat way. He and a dozen country and bluegrass musicians deliver rollicking versions of old American folk songs associated with singer/activist Pete Seeger. Lurking among curious choices like "Froggy Goes a Courtin'" and "John Henry" are a few protest classics such as "Eyes on the Prize" and the title song, which still resonate in these tumultuous times. The moving "Mrs McGrath," an antiwar tale of a mother and double-amputee son, puts every simplistic rant on Neil Young's record to shame. Grade: C+
Neither rock icon has delivered anything near his best here. Let's file these two albums under "now that he's got that out of his system...."
- John Kehe