Friday, September 09, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: RECENT ALT-COUNTRY (WHATEVER THAT IS)

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 9, 2005

No Depression magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary, which means that the concept of "alternative country" has been around for more than a decade.

It never became the next big thing as some people predicted for about 10 minutes in the mid 90s, but there are still some fine alternative country artists out there. Here’s a round-up of some recent examples:

* Freedom and Weep by The Waco Brothers. Starting out as a side project for Mekon Jon Langford, the wonderful Wacos have been around for about as long as No Depression magazine.

In the mid ‘90s some of their songs were full of snide references to President Clinton. ("Dollar Bill the Cowboy" for instance.) But these days another president has won the Wacos’ hearts. In the liner notes of Freedom and Weep, Brother Dean Schlabowske’s thank-you list concludes with, "Most of all, thanks to W for all the material."

No, President Bush’s name isn’t mentioned once in the lyrics. There are some lines that could be interpreted as rage against the White House. "Loaves and fishes, drugs & guns -- One for all and all for one/Dumb boy the patriot -- one day, one day, you’ll run out of luck," Langford spits in "Chosen One."

Or there’s the election-night depression of "Rest of the World," where Schlabowske sings "The champagne’s still on ice/Might as well down it tonight/It ain’t gonna wait four more years/Nor will your rights."

But mostly its an atmosphere of political malaise that permeates the songs of Freedom and Weep. "If you’re think you’re getting screwed, join the club," sings steel guitarist Mark Durante on the closing song. "If you’re sick and tired of being used, join the club."

But while the words speak of a nation shrinking in liberty and prosperity, the music here is classic hard-charging, hard-chugging Waco Brothers. Truly this is music to dance on the ashes by.

*Cold Roses by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Some have said this double-disc set is Adams’ ode to The Grateful Dead -- at least the psychedelic-country Workingman’s Dead/ American Beauty -era Grateful Dead.

It’s true, there are some very Dead-like tunes here -- the opening cut "Magnolia Mountain" for instance -- that surely have Jerry Garcia grinning in the Great Beyond.

But to me this album isn’t so much a Dead tribute as it is a return to Whiskeytown. This is the closest Adams has come to that "damned country band" he started "because punk rock is too hard to sing."

The sound of Cold Roses is more country than anything he’s done since his first solo album Heartbreaker. On a song called "Cherry Lane," Adams even sounds he’s attempting a Hank Williams yodel.

Much of the credit for the country feel here should go to his band, especially steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, an Austin veteran who has played with Asleep at the Wheel among others.

Some songs are practically begging for some mainstream country star to turn into schlock, such as the gorgeous "When Will You Come Back Home." Of course these are balanced by songs like "Beautiful Sorta," which rocks with a rockabilly swagger.

* Red Dog Tracks by Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris set the standard for male/female country duets. I’m not saying that Chip and Carrie reach that pinnacle, but if anyone deserves the Gram & Emmylou Award this year, it has to be this duo.

Taylor is a grizzled veteran of the music world. His biggest contribution to western civilization is the ‘60s garage-band classic "Wild Thing," (Yes, someone actually wrote "Wild Thing." It didn‘t just burst forth from the Forbidden Cavern as you might have assumed.) He also wrote "Angel of the Morning," a sexual-guilt hit full for both Marilee Rush and Juice Newton.

Rodriguez doesn’t have that history, but she’s sure got the talent. Her voice is a sultry, sexy drawl, comparable in some ways to Lucinda Williams, but sweeter. She’s also a fine fiddler, showing off that talent in the bluegrassy instrumental "Elzick's Farewell."

The strongest songs here are the slow, longing, dreamy ones that show off not only the irresistible vocal harmonies but guest picker Bill Frisell’s guitar as well These include "Private Thoughts," "Once Again, One Day … Will You Be Mine." and "Big Moon Shinin’," which has one of the best country metaphors I’ve heard in awhile: "I am a 12-year-old Macallan scotch -- on the third shelf of the bar/ waitin’ for you to just … drink me up."

A couple of Hank Williams songs here ("My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It" and "I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)" are well and good, but seem like filler. If Taylor’s still writing this impressively all these years after "Wild Thing" there’s surely a couple of spare originals that would have been better.

* Iron Flowers by Grey DeLisle. Someday historians will surely debate which was worse -- "Stairway to Heaven" by Dolly Parton or "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Grey DeLisle.

But despite that weird misstep, which kicks off the album, DeLisle has released another album of aural delight.

Her last effort, The Graceful Ghost lived up to its name in spookiness and ethereality. There are hints of that spirit here, most obviously on quite songs like the title number "Sweet Little Bluebird."

But on Iron Flowers she’s backed on most songs by a full band and sounds much tougher. In fact, on some songs like the rockabilly gospel of "God’s Got It," and the fierce acoustic romp called "The Bloody Bucket," she even shows evidence of a Wanda Jackson growl. And on "Blueheart," backed by a fuzz tone-loving band called The Amazements, she sounds outright grungy.

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