Glimpsing Days of Future Past

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

A new Al Green? A new George Jones? A new Neil Young? There are lots of traces of old pop greatness in this edition of the guide--a way to keep up with what’s exciting in pop on a budget of $50 a month. Shara Nelson reminds you of Green at his peak. David Ball reminds you of Jones at his peak. And who reminds you of Young at his peak? Why Young himself, of course.


Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Let Love In,” Mute/Elektra. If success were measured by acclaim alone, the veteran Cave would be a superstar by now. But the blank stares from the crowd during his set at the opening Lollapalooza concert showed how strictly a cult favorite he remains. Too bad. His music combines the naked emotionalism of Leonard Cohen, the theatrical punctuation of Tom Waits and the smoldering tension of a Sergio Leone Western.

Shara Nelson, “What Silence Knows, Chrysalis. We may at last have the answer to all the prayers for a singer with the soulful purity and captivating character that has largely been missing from the R&B; world since Al Green was at his creative peak in the ‘70s. A fine solo debut from the London-born singer and writer.


Dan Penn’s “Do Right Man” (Sire/Warner Bros.). If Penn did nothing more than co-write such classic, soul-accented tales of romantic obsessions as “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” in the ‘60s, he’d deserve an honored place in pop history. But Penn’s singing is also worth attention. He can’t match Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, who have recorded his songs, but the strain of trying to reach the notes adds to the struggle in the lyrics.


David Ball, “Thinkin’ Problem,” Warner Bros. It’s a good bet in a blindfold test that 99 out of 100 country fans would identify George Jones as the vocalist on the hit title track of Ball’s first album for Warner Bros. He writes most of his own material, exhibiting a keen feel for playful lyric twists. Sample line: “I’ve got a thinkin’ problem / She’s always on my mind.”

Reverend Horton Heat, “Liquor in the Front,” Sub Pop/Interscope. If you want your country with a bit more of a manic rockabilly aura, try this collection, which was produced by Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. Think of the music Jerry Lee Lewis might have made in the ‘50s if he had just seen Ministry and the Cramps in concert.


Neil Young, “Sleeps With Angels, Reprise. In a work with the soul-baring intimacy of his 1975 classic “Tonight’s the Night,” Young writes about disillusionment and despair with uncanny grace. At times he takes the role of the protective parent, offering comfort and support. At other times, he assumes the role of someone whose youthful idealism has been shattered. An album of the year contender.