Christy McWilson

The Lucky One (Hightone Records)

Christy McWilson is the lead singer of an alt-country band called the Picketts. You've never heard them. Few have. But she wrote a bunch of songs, figured she'd put them down for posterity and managed to hook up with noted singer/songwriter Dave Alvin to produce the recordings. She called in some of her husband's famous friends (she is married to Scott McCaughey, once of the Young Fresh Fellows and now a virtual member of R.E.M.) to play on the record, roped in Peter Buck to play guitar and Mike Mills to sing backup vocals on a couple of tracks.

Don't be fooled by the shoddy packaging (a dark, low-contrast closeup of McWilson that looks like a badly photocopied cutout from 1972), because McWilson deserves better. The songs on this record are uniformly praiseworthy, a delightful mixture of country structures with classic pop touches. Imagine a cross between Marshall Crenshaw and, oh, maybe Olivia Newton-John's country material. It's bright, sprightly and infectious.

"Little Red Hen" is the type of song to be hummed while people do chores nationwide, if only it could be discovered by the masses. Built on a solid, four-square rock beat, McWilson shouts out the lyrics with confidence, condemning the laziness of her target, a domestic partner who does none of the work yet wants all of the rewards. (Presumably this song is drawn completely from imagination and is not aimed at her own husband, who is credited with child care in the accompanying lyric booklet.) Were it not for the brilliant chorus, the song would be a simple garage-punk riff-rocker; but a haunting yodel bounces against a powerful reply of "Not I!" and a snickering high-end guitar lick punctuates the answer, resulting in a classic moment that is repeated several times, always to perfect effect.

Song after song, McWilson springs a little pop surprise in what probably began life as generic exercises. "Fly Away" sounds a lot like the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" until she lets loose a sly, wordless melody line after the chorus. And then there's the beautiful cover of Brian Wilson's "'Til I Die." It's right smack in the middle of the album, a quiet stillness of peace and pain and struggle and acceptance, a lovely reminder that McWilson is a terrific singer and that Wilson's great songs didn't stop coming after 1966.

Christy McWilson is not a household name, but her record deserves to be heard. The Lucky One may be the title of one of her songs, but it also refers to anybody who listens to such a fine album.