It's long past the point where ingenuity is a prerequisite for even the best alt-country outfits. Then again, ingenuity hasn't been much of a factor since 1993, when Uncle Tupelo traded in its punked-up power trio format for a more subtle rhythm section, steel guitars and back-porch duets with the likes of Doug Sahm. For most bands of Tupelo's acutely reverent ilk, betrayal of one's forebears is tantamount to artistic parricide, and the key to survival is how effectively a band resurrects select portions of the past and fashions them into something that sounds vaguely current. Old habits may die hard, but with the proper updating, there's no reason why they can't live on indefinitely.
That considered, count Slobberbone and Whiskeytown among the most up-to-date of the newer No Depression stylists, staunch roots rockers with distinct traces of C&W revisionism. Both bands have, no doubt, done their digging in all the right places, exhuming not only the superficial traits of their influences, but a nice hunk of their spirit as well.
To say the least, Slobberbone's Barrel Chested is a spirited offering. As shit-faced and slovenly as it is honest, the Denton band's sophomore release is a surly beast of a follow-up to 1995's more restrained Crow Pot Pie. The disc's more cathartic moments (the title track, "Engine Joe," "Your Excuse," "Front Porch," "One Rung") are also its most melodically direct, and the songs vent their rubbed-raw fury in a fashion not unlike the most feral Crazy Horse -- or the least subdued early Tupelo.
Fortunately, Barrel Chested's in-your-face production doesn't squander a shred of the bruising, twin-guitar attack of Mike Hill (who has since left the band) and singer/songwriter Brent Best. "I'll Be Damned," the CD's sprawling, seven-minute focal point, piles on the amplified anguish like an ex-lover's furniture heaped on a back yard bonfire. Best is left spewing invectives like a jilted man possessed ("I'll be damned if I let you take my heart and tear it apart / And make me watch the tears fall from your face") until the tune not so much ends as flames out. Then it's back to the corner bar, where Slobberbone has always been most comfortable, and the place in which Barrel Chested's most moving, real-life drama is hatched.
To aid in the navigation of Strangers Almanac, Outpost Recordings, Whiskeytown's new major-label home, has been good enough to supply postcard-size maps tracing the North Carolina quintet's musical genealogy, which zigzags through a number of regions, genres and decades. Taken at face value, the graphic would have you believe that Whiskeytown is exceptionally well-traveled, what with references to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Loretta Lynn to the Replacements. Those, of course, are combined with the standard acknowledgments of cross-generational alt-country kingpins such as Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo.
And in a way, Strangers Almanac is the perfect musical companion piece to a particularly bad case of road rash, its themes pitting the urge to flee against the desire to stay. Credit the frayed nerves, itchy feet and roving eye of primary singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, whose best lyrics address a near-insatiable wanderlust and the anxiety it instills. While Adams's uncertain vocals tend to waver between a languid Paul Westerberg croak and a strapping croon more along the lines of Glenn Frey, he stands on his own as a songwriter, picking apart the damage his rogue lifestyle has wrought upon significant others with a flair for telling detail. "Got 16 days / One for every time I've gone away / One for every time I should've stayed / Should've worn my wedding ring," he sings on "16 Days." Like Westerberg, Adams is an efficient wordsmith, summing up a lifetime of hurt in the turn of a phrase.
Still, the largely friction-free music on Strangers Almanac suggests a more complacent existence than does Adams's angst-ridden prose. And while Whiskeytown might shrug off comparisons to the laid-back Southern California slickness of, say, the Eagles, they exude a similar hippie-cowboy finesse on a number of songs, especially the wistful, pedal-steel-swathed folk rocker "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" (with guest vocals from Alejandro Escovedo). If "Excuse Me" is not quite a dead ringer for "Take It Easy" in structure or attitude (the former is as self-defeating as the latter is vain), the tunes are clones in overall feel. Looks like the mapmakers left out a few points of interest on the road to Whiskeytown. Barrel Chested (*** 1/2); Strangers Almanac (****)
-- Hobart Rowland
Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival
You've got to hand it to Wyclef Jean: The man is never boring. On Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival, the guitar-wielding, mike-checking third of the guerrilla hip-hop trio the Fugees sets sail on a message-laden journey, a colorfully bizarre fun house cruise through the bowels of hip-hop.