Out There

On the surface
Rosanne Cash
Columbia Records

Rosanne Cash, despite her Nashville-bred instincts, has never been a singles artist: She's got the songs ("I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me," "Rosie Strike Back," "Seven Year Ache," "Hold On"--none of which are included here), but she succeeds when they're collected on the full-lengthers that reveal a deeper substance throughout their entirety. What made Interiors such a remarkable album wasn't just the individual pieces ("On the Surface," "On the Inside," "What We Really Want"--all included here), but the whole ugly puzzle once assembled, a bitter album about her divorce from Rodney Crowell. Those songs need context like Paul McCartney needed John Lennon, and to drop them without rhyme or reason on a half-hearted best-of-plus-unreleased-tracks misses the point and dilutes the impact.

Retrospective works best as a showcase for Rosanne Cash the interpreter, leaving Rosanne Cash the songwriter to albums like King's Record Shop and Interiors. Here, she performs two songs by John Hiatt (including "Pink Bedroom," a finely detailed ode to teen dreams and adult heartbreak), one by Elvis Costello ("Our Little Angel," proving her one of the only singers to understand the irony without being overwhelmed by it), Karl Wallinger ("All Come True"), Lennon and McCartney (a sweetly moody "I'm Only Sleeping"), John Kilzer, Steve Goodman (a live "A Lover is Forever"), and Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman ("I Count the Tears"). Which leaves six songs she wrote or co-wrote, all of which deserve to be treated better than the filler they become here.

Hookers and broken hearts
Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits
Various artists
Manifesto Records

Here's the rare "tribute" album that gets it right--15 diverse artists who aren't so impressed with the model they can't interpret their hearts out. So you have Drugstore refashioning "Old Shoes" as a moody rocker, Buzzcock Pete Shelley new-waving "Better off Without a Wife" and The Wedding Present punking up "Red Shoes by the Drugstore," Jeffrey Lee Pierce adding a hip-hop beat to "Pasties and a G-String," Magnapop providing the necessary woman's touch to "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," Dave Alvin driving his "Old '55" down a dirty roots-rock road, and Frente! salvaging their throwaway career with a wrenching "Ruby's Arms." It's good enough to overcome the 10,000 Maniacs, and great enough to include Tim Buckley's long-forgotten "Martha," an unsentimental hello and goodbye.

--Robert Wilonsky