Meat Purveyors All Relationships Are Doomed To Fail Bloodshot, Christy McWilson Bed of Roses Hightone, Lisa Mednick Semaphore Texas Music Group, Porter Hall, TN Welcome to Porter Hall, TN Slewfoot, David Zollo Big Night Trailer
In the last fifteen years there's been a veritable explosion of interest in roots music, led by a generation of musicians who are faithfully exploring the crossroads where folk, traditional mountain music, honky-tonk country, and singer/songwriter impulses meet. Naturally, fans expected it would eventually reach critical mass and start making inroads into the dreary morass that is modern country music. But oddly enough, when the traditional sounds on the O Brother soundtrack delivered the kind of numbers that made Garth Brooks a star in the early '90s, nothing beyond that happened. The most vital music in the genre remains on indie labels that continue to try and balance art and commerce, even in these perilous financial times.
Austin's Meat Purveyors play bluegrass with a blistering post-punk fierceness, and while the lyrics flirt with irony (as does their album title All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail), the group's blistering instrumental prowess and the razor-sharp singing of Jo Walston delivers the goods. The album opener, "Hey Little Sister," sets the tone with a message of support to a battered woman, delivered with a slash of bitter humor -- "I seen that bruise on the back of your arm/If I find that man's been doin' you harm, I'll cut him down." "Thinkin' About Drinkin" and "Trucker's Speed" sound like potential anthems, while covers of Abba's "SOS" and Nick Lowe's "Without Love" shows that gems can shine in any setting.
Christy McWilson, former lead singer of Seattle's underrated Picketts, has one of alt.country's most gripping voices. Her upper range is full of the controlled mania that makes great country music: an appealing combination of hope and heartache. McWilson wrote most of the tunes on Bed of Roses, a mature work that deals with the singer's attempts to balance motherhood, marriage, and a career on the road. She seldom raises her voice, but her quiet delivery magnifies the emotional impact of the tunes. "Sheep Song" sounds like an agnostic spiritual, while "Serpentine River" echoes a '50s teen death ballad. When McWilson sings "I still want to believe in love" on the uptempo "True Believer," there's a hint of anguish in her voice that turns the sentiment on its head.
Lisa Mednick's Semaphore is a downtempo masterpiece that explores the thornier aspects of romantic relationships. Her melodies have a folky simplicity that instantly imprint on your psyche, and she delivers them in a fragile voice that seems to be calling from the edge of the abyss. Mednick is also an inventive arranger. Tunes move from the straightforward pop-rock vibe of "Wrecker" -- "I might have been your shelter, but I'll be your storm tonight" -- to the folky Civil War ballad "Chickamauga," to the sparse experimental rhythms of the Tom Waits-like "Dancing in My Cell." Mednick's understated lyrical power puts most major label songwriter chicks to shame.
Porter Hall, TN's almost eponymous debut, Welcome to Porter Hall, TN, is the most straightforward alt.country act in this batch. Leaders Gary Roadarmel and Molly Conley love to harmonize à la Porter and Dolly/Conway and Loretta, and they write tunes that perfectly balance Bakersfield and the Appalachian Mountains. The songs sound like neoclassical cheatin' and drinkin' songs like "Golden Chain of Hate" ("I know she hates me and I pray she dies"), "Drunkard and the Angel," and "Screwed Blue," which would have been an anthem had it been released 25 years ago.
Iowa isn't known as a major music hub, but it's given us underground folk hero Greg Brown and now, pianist David Zollo, former lead man of High and Lonesome. On Big Night, Zollo's second solo outing for his own Trailer Records label, his vocals have elements of a Dylan/Petty moan, but it's more tuneful and expressive, and while his new band is as indebted to the Stones as it is to Southern rock, the tunes are in a solid roots-rock pocket. "Gonna Get What You Wanted" combines Southern guitar fire with a jumpin' jive rhythm. "While You Undress" mixes barrelhouse piano, slashing slide guitar, and a sexy lyric delivered without the usual macho sneer. Finally, "Driftwood from Kerry" closes the album with a tale of lost love given an almost religious feeling by Zollo's gospel-influenced fills on the big Hammond B-3.
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