Richard Buckner

It's just like Richard Buckner to attach a drab, monosyllabic title like Since to a work of such complicated beauty. He's the critics' pet, after all -- the kind of sinfully gifted storyteller who makes us music scribes feel we're needed, if only to figure out just where he's coming from. And if we do, by chance, hit on a discernible direction within those artfully strung-together phrases, cryptic metaphors and grammatically unrealized sentence fragments, well then, I guess we've proven we're not really pantywaists in the end.

Or have we? Because chances are, with Buckner, you only think you've solved the puzzle. And frankly, it's better that way -- to just relax, stow the flip analyses and allow his poetic clusters of emotional contradiction to rattle around your brain like multicolored marbles in a standup maze. With Since, his third and best release, the San Francisco singer/songwriter has never made it easier to rest your head and open your heart. Where Buckner's last two efforts -- 1995's Bloomed and 1997's Devotion + Doubt -- amounted to little more than pockets of substantive prose seasoned and textured with spare musical accompaniment (albeit often brilliantly rendered), Since is a legitimate collection of songs, fully fleshed out with crack backup support and high, lonesome melodies that are as timeless in a pop sense as they are often disarmingly bleak.

While by no means a great singer in the technical sense, Buckner is nonetheless a gifted vocalist, and the wounded weight that he attaches to every line is never less than honest. Even when in the company of his dream band (which includes indie-folk chanteuse Syd Straw and members of Tortoise, Son Volt, Gastr Del Sol and the Schramms) and producer/multi-instrumentalist JD Foster (who also worked on Devotion + Doubt), Buckner can seem like he's barely holding it together. As usual, his lyrics reflect that instability. "Ground down from-the-heels-up / I've been in this mood before," Buckner warbles atop the devastatingly tornadic steel-guitar leads of Son Volt's Eric Heywood, and the relentless, spiraling groove of Foster (bass) and Tortoise's John McEntire (drums).

But Buckner isn't looking to cure his poisonous mood swings, and he's skeptical of others whose solution is to run away from their demons: "So, you just pour your poor self out and milk your spirit down," he sings on "Raze." "But, what're ya gonna do in another year or two but groove a new rut in another town."

At times on Since, Buckner's grit-versus-sensitivity ratio approximates an uneasy cross between Lou Barlow and Steve Earle. Elsewhere he walks the jagged line between cynicism and hope like Jay Farrar's more urbane lost cousin. In most every instance -- whether it's alt-country grandstanding ("Jewelbomb"), prickly acoustic minimalism ("Boys, the Night Will Bury You," the Woody Guthrie-esque "Slept") or tender balladry (the duo with Straw, "Faithful Shooter") -- his vocals tug relentlessly against the sturdy structures of his most fully realized tunes to date. The tension that results is never less than enthralling, but it's also ominous -- like the eerie silence after a backroad car wreck. (**** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Willie Nelson

Every other album Willie Nelson releases is hailed as his comeback; the ones in between (those dipped in holy water or recorded with his honky-tonk homies) are released on labels so tiny no one even knows they're out. Never has one man's career been so revered and so ignored all at once. But Nelson has more music inside him than white blood cells; for him, making up this genius shit is easier than blinking. Which is why Teatro -- the sound made when you get Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball and Nelson's own Spirit into bed and turn out the lights -- is that much of a grand accomplishment ... and also such a profound disappointment. Fact is, a man this God-blessed with talent shouldn't have to try as hard as producer Daniel Lanois makes it all seem.

The notion of Nelson hooking up with Lanois -- the middle-aged, new-age version of hip -- is intriguing enough; after all, Lanois rendered Bob Dylan's dead-man's croak into an ethereal sigh and turned Harris's high notes into low moans. But Nelson needs no such help from Lanois, whose idea of invention is filling in every blank with some gimmicky effect. Set Nelson down with a guitar, which he plays like Django Reinhardt on a Hank Williams bender, and with that voice of his, as pliant and cozy as old leather, and you're guaranteed only magnificence. The 1996 release Spirit proved as much, with Willie singing his love songs to God and gal (almost) all by his lonesome. It was perfect -- no, better than that.

With Teatro, Nelson tries to repeat -- and one-up -- history. It picks up where Spirit ended, with him playing sad Spanish lullabies. Indeed, Reinhardt's "Ou es-tu, mon amour" opens the disc, proving once more Nelson's a guitar player the way Superman is just a guy. Then he and Lanois and Harris resurrect seven old songs from Nelson's back catalog, add a few new ones and a Lanois cover, then "modernize" the whole lot by layering on the doubled percussion instruments, ambient keyboards and vibraphones. Never has sparse sounded so cluttered, especially on songs such as "Everywhere I Go" and "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," where the drums beat the tenebrous mood half to death.

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