ALL EARS 

The first track on the set is low-key, as if the four old-timers were still feeling out the new recruit. But it doesn't take long for the spirit to descend: Track two, "Peace in the Valley," starts just as gently, with Cooke (he was still using his original name, "Cook," at the time) singing a sweet lead, but just as he hits his peak, tenor Paul Foster rises behind him like Lazarus: Cooke's in the middle of a descending river of notes, and Foster shouts "Well! Well! Well!" - pushing the song over into soul-stirring territory.

Gospel music had long packed this kind of punch, but as Cooke gains confidence, he brings something new to the group. The voice itself is recognizable from the first, but by the second disc, a real personality is shining through. Many soul legends were known for bringing gospel's divine fire to love songs, but Cooke is going the other way, infusing evangelism with the gently seductive mood that would soon woo a secular nation. When, on "He's My Friend until the End," he almost offhandedly suggests, "Why don't you try my God now?" he's flirting, not preaching.

There are some songs in this almost four-hour collection that are presented two or three times, in alternate takes. Sometimes that gets in the way of casual listening, but it's revealing on "Come and Go to That Land," where different versions experiment with incorporating an electric guitar into the mix; there, the second alternate take is actually far more enjoyable than the "master" version released at the time.

In a few years, Cooke would be romancing the world with "You Send Me," then bringing a religious conviction to the deeply moving civil rights ballad "A Change Is Gonna Come." His death, in a 1964 shooting, was a scandal, but Sam Cooke's life on record is glorious.

Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch isn't likely to switch to the gospel camp anytime soon, but his new solo album, Now You Know (Warner Bros.), features a moody, fuzzy take on the old "Woke Up this Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)." When he sings "hallelujah," though, it's more a sound of resignation than of rebirth. The record is more about the blues, anyway; Martsch has spent the last few years obsessing over the Delta stylings of such folks as Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the influence shows here in a strong but predictably offbeat way. It's most obvious on the first three tracks, pared-down songs showcasing the singer's open-tuned slide guitar playing.

It's a sound foreign to the indie-rock idiom, and paired with Martsch's white-guy whine, it's new and exciting. Rather than try to replicate something long gone, he makes blues techniques his own. As the album progresses, he adds more instruments and more amplification, occasionally venturing into Zeppelin/Hendrix country. It's odd to hear such bombastic stuff from this unassuming-sounding songwriter, but he makes his case well. If only more indie-rock solo projects were as good.

More by John DeFore

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