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Allison Moorer 

The Duel (Sugarhill Records)

Guitars crackle, bass throbs, drums pound. The sound is a classic rock & roll grind: thick and drenched with electricity. The vocals, however, come from a different tradition and are a restrained series of observations; emotions are held back until the moment when release will mean even more. Allison Moorer has merged her country soul with the force of rock & roll, and her music is better than ever.

First let's acknowledge that rock & roll and country have been dancing around with each other pretty much since the dawn of electronic amplification. Moorer's not inventing the wheel here, but she's come up with some of the most beautiful spokes for it in a good long time.

Let's also point out that Moorer has been making terrific records since 1998, when her debut album, Alabama Song, set out to make her a country star. Somehow that didn't happen, despite consistent artistic growth for the past five years. Last year's live Show finally ended Moorer's dabbling with Nashville, and she jumped ship for an independent label. While The Duel is in one sense a refinement of her excellent Miss Fortune, and the rock & roll energy was blatant on Show, there is a palpable sense of new freedom here.

As always, Moorer has co-written the songs with her husband, Butch Primm. They conjure up a cast of characters dealing with the pain of life -- sometimes by acknowledging it, sometimes by fighting it and sometimes, of course, by trying to get away from it by any means necessary. The title track is a rage against the loss of faith in God because He allowed a loved one to die. "Sing Me to Sleep" is a devastating look into the mind of a person just about to pass on. Other songs describe the pathos of using drinking or even singing about pain to cover up one's melancholy.

Moorer and her band expertly mix rock, country and even gospel arrangements into these deliberate songs of woe. There are no weak tracks on this album. The band -- primarily Adam Landry on electric guitar, John Davis on bass, piano and other instruments, and R.S. Field on drums -- dives into the emotional truth of each song, delivering a chills-up-the-spine level of thrills through a rare combination of raw energy and dynamic range.

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