Cheri Knight
The Northeast Kingdom

As a member of the great Boston band Blood Oranges, Cheri Knight was alternative country before alternative country was cool. But among those in the know, Knight's singing and songs had long been special. Her plain but moving alto and tales about the cycle of life and death left fans spellbound.

When Blood Oranges broke up not long after its finest release, 1994's The Crying Tree, Knight set upon a solo career. Her fine debut, The Knitter, didn't get much more notice than her work in the Oranges had, but now, as one of the first signings to Steve Earle's E-Squared label, she has an opportunity to reach the larger audience she deserves. And it's an opportunity she's jumped on: The new The Northeast Kingdom includes some of the best work of her career.

As always, Knight's latest songs are at once mystical and gritty, her stories filled with inscrutable, provocative images. "Bend and kiss my face again / Lay me down again, in the river of sin," Knight's conflicted narrator sings to a secret lover on the title track, metaphorically summing up an act filled as much with release as it is with guilt. Beyond Knight's writing, though, The Northeast Kingdom thrives on the remarkable arrangements provided by the Twangtrust, a.k.a producers Earle and Ray Kennedy. While on many cuts, Knight's new band amounts to the old Blood Oranges (mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, guitarist Mark Spencer, drummer Will Rigby and Knight on bass) with an added sideman or two, the Twangtrust has managed to find strengths heretofore unrevealed. Where the Oranges' more countrified numbers had tended to be a bit stiff, the twangiest cuts here (the honky-tonk shuffle "White Lies," the chugging Southern rocker "Black Eyed Suzie") are imbued with an unmistakable swing. Even on numbers as airy and delicate as the acoustic "All Blue," an insistent groove remains front and center.

And front and center is where Knight belongs. From the keening "Dar Glasgow" that opens the album to the stripped-down reprise of "Black Eyed Suzie" that closes it, The Northeast Kingdom is filled with compelling music, executed flawlessly. It's a thrilling showcase for a special talent who's made the most of her moment. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

With its down-home swampiness and hootenanny attitude, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea transcends the indie-pop, lo-fi strata in which it's likely to be defined. Neutral Milk Hotel creates a hectic, self-contained instrumental universe of accordions, horns, marching-band drums, guitars, banjos and zither. It's a sound that might have suggested some bizarre retro animal out of the '60s. But thanks to lead singer Jeff Magnum's wail of a voice and the music's white-noise leanings, the Hotel's eclecticism is decidedly postmodern -- as in Captain Beefheart meets the Carter Family.

Created under the tutelage of producer/auteur Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo, Aeroplane is a deceptive listen, to say the least. Its simple songs might border on friendly were it not for the home production, odd instrumentation and Magnum's mildly unpleasant voice, a roughness that somehow fits perfectly. The Hotel's world is filled with wanton loss and ache, various freaks of nature, parents who drink until they disappear and strangely endearing sentiments like, "I will be with you when you lose your breath / chasing the only meaningful memory you thought you had left." Sure, these themes have been covered before, but when surrounded by music of such patent originality, the discomfort rings true.

All the songs run together, literally, providing unity without uniformity. The finale of one track bleeds into the intro to the next, with fragments of prose repeated in various contexts. Aeroplane is disjointed enough not to qualify as either standard country or classic rock, yet just smooth enough to hum along to. An oddly pleasing paradox, indeed. (****)

-- David Simutis

Jim Lauderdale

Jim Lauderdale can't buy a hit. Oh sure, he's written plenty of them for other singers. His songs have been gracing George Strait albums for years and, just recently, he penned the Patty Loveless smash "You Don't Seem to Miss Me." But like successful fellow Nashville songwriters Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters, Lauderdale can't score on his own to save his life.

One explanation might be that, when compared to Strait and Loveless, Lauderdale really ain't much of a singer; his delivery's restricted to a pretty compact vocal range. Even so, his best lyrics are wrapped around luxurious melodies that rise and fall dramatically; they're the sorts of songs that work best with a singer who can stretch out and get comfortable -- like Strait or, at the very least, George Jones. Written with Jones in mind, Lauderdale's 1989 version of "King of Broken Hearts" is some kinda swell. But then you hear Strait's version of it on the Pure Country soundtrack -- with the superstar borrowing faithfully from Lauderdale's original phrasing and arrangement -- and suddenly you realize, "Oh, that's how it was supposed to sound."

Perhaps it's wrong to make too much of Lauderdale's vocal weakness, though. For one thing, when it comes to country singer/songwriters, Lauderdale's singing chops are far better than, say, Bill Anderson's or Kris Kristofferson's, both of whom have had more than their share of big hits. For another, Lauderdale's songs -- bolstered by smarter-than-average lyrics and, of course, those melodies -- are just too good not to hear.

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