The Best of Mountain Stage, Volume Three (Blue Plate)
Various Artists

By Bob Bahr

Ever flipped through radio stations and been stopped by something that obviously doesn't belong amid the chartbusters and dance divas? Something fresh, new, acoustic, and intriguing? For folks in the Louisville area, the needle on their radio dial probably rested at 89.3, WFPL, when this happened.

By no coincidence, that's the home of Mountain Stage," a public radio program from West Virginia that showcases good songwriting, usually performed acoustically. The Best of Mountain Stage strings some of those radio moments together, bringing Bruce Cockburn, Timbuk3, Warren Zevon, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Cowboy Junkies and others together. If you are one of those people who heard "the different" and listened through till the end, this recording will be a treat.

It's hard to pick highlights on this 13-song sampler; they are all good tunes delivered without undue flash and bombast. Timbuk3 kicks things off with an offbeat alternative-folk ditty called "Border Crossing" That segues into an echo-drenched marvel of pop simplicity from Alex Chilton titled "Guantan Amerika," which mines alternative gold along with Marshall Crenshaw's rootsy, humorous "Cynical Girl" The Cowboy Junkies work their unique moody folk-country field with the subdued blue of "Misguided Angel," featuring the soothing, sedating vocals of Margo Timmons.

Talented women performers are well-represented by the understated Sarah McLachlan ("Shelter"), the crack Mountain Stage house band The Fabulous Twister Sisters (on Tim O'Brien's "Romance Is a Slow Dance") and country folk darling Mary-Chapin Carpenter (a somewhat disappointing "Never Had It So Good"). Each song makes the listener wish to hear the rest of the performer's set on the Mountain Stage.

Jo-El Sonnier and the Texas Tornadoes provide spicy ethnicity with Cajun and Mexican jams, respectively. With a silly wit, effective bass vocals and folk instrumentation, the Crash Test Dummies explore superhero issues never before asked in "Superman's Song," which contrasts with Warren Zevon's realism in the stirring "Renegade," a song about the persistent tragedy of Southern life. Zevon sings along with his piano playing, letting the emotion come simply from the heart of the song (with occasional — and superfluous — embellishments from a violin). Yo La Tengo presents a mildly interesting "Lewis" that stands small in the shadow of their hot reputation.

Yo La Tengo's middling effort notwithstanding, the most surprising thing about this album is its consistent quality, given the number and range of contributing artists. The Best of Mountain Stage starts well, ends well, and contains no filler. From Bruce Cockburn's "Waiting for a Miracle" with its Grateful Dead-like loose groove to Jo-El Sonnier's tight "Tear-Stained Letter," this disk breathes with a natural rhythm.