By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
With all due respect to the alt-country holy trinity of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco, the Bottle Rockets are the finest band the "No Depression" movement has produced. Not that anything remotely smacking of trendiness could have produced these guys. No, the Bottle Rockets' music was born of an unholy alliance of '70s AOR rock -- Aerosmith, Skynyrd, Foreigner -- classic honky-tonk country and the work of more contemporary, once slightly left-of-center artists like John Anderson (when he was on Warner Bros., that is). I like to think the Bottle Rockets are what Hank Williams Jr. would sound like if he were younger, a lot smarter and not an asshole.
Above all, the Bottle Rockets' music has a sense of place. They sound like a Midwestern band should, but there's no calculation here -- the Bottle Rockets are just an honest representation of their influences and inspirations, and they aren't shy or embarrassed about where that road leads. Think for a minute how refreshing that is. Maybe that's why they were tapped recently to appear in the PBS special The Mississippi: River of Song, for which they perform a stripped-down version of "Get Down River," the band's ode to Festus' habit of flooding.
An electric version of that song also kicks off Leftovers, an eight-song mini-album that marks the band's bow on Texas' Doolittle Records. The disc serves, more or less, as a declaration of independence from their former label, Atlantic, which failed to make the country at large familiar with the band's considerable charms. Leftovers -- the title is the most unappetizing thing about the record -- consists of songs that didn't make the cut for their previous album, 24 Hours a Day, but probably could have. "Get Down River" is the best of the lot, one of the finest songs ever written about a flood (it contains the priceless line "Looks like the Gulf of Mexico/down by the Texaco"). But there's plenty of other worthwhile stuff here. "Dinner Train to Dutchtown" is a sly, bluesy shuffle, "Skip's Song" a grim character study and "Chattanooga" a bizarre erotic memoir of an encounter with "Pete Buck's first wife." There's also the chooglin' "Coffee Monkey," one of the more memorable tunes from the band's long-ago incarnation as Chicken Truck. "If Walls Could Talk" and "Financing His Romance" make plain the group's hard-country leanings, and "My Own Cadillac" offers a howling, mordant wish to follow in the footsteps of Hank Williams -- Sr., that is. If you don't already know the Bottle Rockets' work -- and if you've been reading this newspaper for any length of time, how can you not? -- Leftovers isn't necessarily the place to start. But it's a fine addendum to the group's three terrific albums and an enticing look at where they might go next. Chances are, that's a trip you'll want to be on, too.
Pan American (Kranky Records)
I fell into bed exhausted, half-drunk and teetering on the edge of consciousness. I reached down for my headphones and pressed the play button as my head eased back into the pillow. As the ethereal, dubby sounds of Pan American began to gently bounce over my eardrums, I felt myself being washed away into a netherworld where I could not tell whether I was dreaming or fully conscious.
Mark Nelson, guitarist for space-rock outfit Labradford, has gone solo under the name Pan American, releasing a self-titled debut from Kranky Records. Splinters of whispers, chilly organs, faint hints of twangy guitars, space-dub bass and ratcheting electronic pings and blips recall early Aphex Twin, but the space-walking sound of Pan-American is warmer, richer and more enticing. More important, none of the tracks begins with a cold, metallic and frightening mechanical sound, which seems to have become the signature of this brand of ambient electronica. Nothing here sounds as if it was recorded in a postmodern slaughterhouse.
Unlike Nelson's main gig, Labradford, which at times can be a bit arch, inaccessible and downright soporific, Pan American manages on each track to find a compelling groove -- a very mellow, stepping groove to be sure, but one that creates an enveloping primordial musical ooze that lulls, pacifies and, odd as it may sound, invigorates. This is not boring stuff -- far from it. In fact, Nelson's adeptly structured sonic landscapes are lush, dense and highly rhythmic. Many of the tracks play on a similar melodic theme, which makes them flow into one another with a calming seamlessness. In a further effort at sublime tranquility, on "Lake Supplies" Nelson uses a soothingly hypnotic hammer dulcimer for an additional mystic quality.
Mystical is nice, but what really separates Pan American from the electro-ambient pack is the influence of dub. Like a warming Jamaican sunset lurking just beneath the frosty surfaces, dub's elemental heat shines through, melting each track just enough to make it vibrant. Pan American proves that atmospheric music doesn't have to be alienating and frigid. Despite the late hour, the alcohol and the comfort of my bed, Pan-American kept me fully focused for its entirety. It was so good that when I woke up, I thought I had dreamed it.
The Dark Gift of Time (Koch)
Blue Aconite (Koch)
Don't you just love the word "ululate"? The word itself means "to howl, hoot or wail," but that's not as important as the sound it makes when it pours out of your mouth; the lush, ringing sound of the doubled "oo" sound slapped up against that slippery "el" -- not once, but twice -- sends waves of pleasant vibrations up and down your body. If you can project that feeling across the entire spectrum of vowel and consonant sounds, you begin to understand the voice of Christine Collister.
Collister has remained just under the critical and popular radar for the entirety of her career. During the '80s she maintained a dual career, working as a background vocalist with Richard Thompson's outstanding live band and recording as part of a duo with songwriter extraordinaire Clive Gregson. After splitting from both jobs, she released an obscure live album four years ago.
In the last couple of months, two new releases have appeared in the U.S. Collister writes or co-writes only a few songs on each album -- all of which are delightful -- and concentrates on covering the songs of others. On Blue Aconite, she invests her soul in material from Jesse Winchester, Sam Phillips, Richard Thompson, Gillian Welch, Anna McGarrigle, Lal Waterson, the Isley Brothers and Tom Waits. It is The Dark Gift of Time, however, that comes closest to perfection. Session appearances from Richard Thompson on guitar and B.J. Cole on pedal steel are perfect foils for Collister's voice on Bruce Cockburn's "The Whole Night Sky" and Tom Waits' "Dirt in the Ground," respectively. David Olney's mysterious and riveting "Deeper Well" is placed in a timeless realm of longing and desire through an imaginative all-percussion arrangement. Elvis Costello's "I Want to Vanish" is delivered with a smooth melancholy only hinted at on the original. Collister conjures up the sound of someone who has just seen a sure sign of death on Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog." Nothing else on Dark Gift reaches the amazing heights of those five songs, though a brave take on Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" is worth noting, and Collister's two originals, "Point Scarlett" and, especially, "Always There" are beautiful tunes beautifully sung. Pop music this polished, with this much attention to mood and craft, is rare in our world today. Both Blue Aconite and The Dark Gift of Time are consistently rewarding and deserve to be noticed as the work of a master interpreter.
-- Steve Pick