Two decades ago, new albums from a slew of country legends, Finger Eleven, Serial Joe and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
The American Milestones Series
These days it’s all about big hats, belly buttons and beefcake — but not too long ago there was a time when country was more about music than marketshare and merchandising. Much of the music industry may have forgotten that, but there are still a few folks who remember those bygone days. Thankfully, they decided to share some of those memories. Hence The American Milestones Series, 10 reissued classic country albums from some of the genre’s most beloved names — Willie, Johnny, George, Marty, Merle and Tammy, to name a few. Each disc features remastered sound, unreleased tracks and authoritative liner notes. I got a chance to sample some. Here’s how they fared:
At San Quentin (The Complete 1969 Concert)
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Um, because it’s Johnny Cash at San Quentin — one of two prison recordings he made in the ’60s, and one of the most electrifying live discs ever. As Cash and his band — including wife June Carter, her mother Maybelle and Carl Perkins — barrel through a fiery set for 1,000 inmates deep inside the prison walls, you can feel their tension in every groove. Put it this way — when the inmates yell, ‘One more time,’ Cash obliges without hesitation. THE HITS: About half the disc — I Walk the Line, Peace in the Valley, Wreck of the Old 97 and the debut of A Boy Named Sue. THE EXTRAS: Pretty much the other half. This CD collects nine songs that weren’t on the original release, including Ring of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues and Daddy Sang Bass. If that ain’t essential country, I don’t know what would be.
I Am What I Am
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Because it’s Possum at his best and bleakest. This 1980 disc was recorded while he was fresh from rehab and still pining for ex Tammy Wynette — and he channels that longing, fear and heartbreak into 10 of the finest tear-in-my-beer weepers to come out of Nashville. THE HITS: The immortal He Stopped Loving Her Today is enough by itself, but you also get Good Hearted Woman, the rehab ode Bone Dry, and the song that pretty much sums it all up: If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will. THE EXTRAS: Four tearjerkers guaranteed to raise a sniffle in every fan.
Red Headed Stranger
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Because it was a breakthrough not just for Willie Nelson, but for country music. Cut on a shoestring budget over two days in 1975, this poignant concept album about a loveless, murderous cowpoke pushed the artistic envelope of country further than anyone had dared before, and turned Nelson from a struggling songwriter (Crazy) into a full-fledged star. THE HITS: The title cut has been a Nelson staple for years, but the biggest track has to be his cover of Floyd Rose’s Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain. THE EXTRAS: Four tracks, including a short Bach minuet performed by Willie on his battered old gee-tar, along with beautiful covers of Hank Williams’ Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You) and Bob Wills’ Maiden’s Prayer.
The Spectacular Johnny Horton
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Because it’s about all he did. Horton came out of nowhere in ’59 with The Battle of New Orleans, a novelty hit that cross-pollenated country, rockabilly and folk into a potent honky-tonk hybrid reminiscent of a rootsier Buddy Holly. Alas, like Holly, he had little chance to enjoy his fame. Two years later, he was killed by a drunk driver. THE HITS: New Orleans, of course, along with When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below) and the thumping rockabilly of Cherokee Boogie. THE EXTRAS: More of the same, including a reworded British version of New Orleans.
The Original Carter Family
Can the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music’s First Family
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Because that subtitle is no idle boast. In the ’30s, A.P. (Doc) Carter, his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle pioneered vocal and guitar-based country, which had been ruled by string bands. With their close harmonies and simple acoustic settings, the Carters created a high lonesome sound others still try to duplicate. THE HITS: Can the Circle Be Unbroken has been a standard longer than I’ve been alive, and will be long after I’m dead. But this is less an album of hits than a history of rural American music, from Worried Man Blues to Wildwood Flower. THE EXTRAS: Nothing, but who’s complaining?
The Greyest Of Blue Skies
I used to think Rainbow Butt Monkeys was the worst band name I’d ever heard. Then they changed their name to Finger Eleven. Which, they maintain, refers not to the appendage that guides most men but to the inner voice that guides us all — even if it isn’t always in the right direction. This Burlington, Ont., quintet certainly have one tough row to hoe with this ambitiously flawed second album, which has little to distinguish it from the legions of post-grunge, modern-rock CDs on the market. Their grinding, dissonant guitars, chest-pounding vocals, funk-metal riffs and spooky production betray the obvious influence of everyone from NIN and RATM to Soundgarden, but despite the band’s obvious musicianship and passion, they can’t quite seem to turn those influences into a satisfying sound of their own. Too melodic for the metalheads, too crunchy for the pop charts and too stereotypical to be memorable, Greyest of Blue Skies ends up coming off as less than the sum of its parts.
Halfway Down the Sky
Some records get better as they go on. Sadly, this aspring debut from New York foursome Splender isn’t one of them. It’s hard to put your finger on why. Things start off strong with I Don’t Understand, a smartly written piece of spry pop-rock with rich vocals and melodies that remind you a little of Squeeze or Crowded House, while still hitting harder than either of those bands. That deft pairing of poppish songcraft and crunchy modern rock is pretty much par for the course on this 13-track debut, which benefits greatly from the polished-glass production of Todd Rundgren. So what’s the gripe? Well, maybe it’s that it’s all a little too perfect — I’ve listened to this thing three times now, and for the life of me I can’t hum a single one of these songs five seconds after they’re over. In other words, Splender have a real nice way of saying things — now they just have to come up with something memorable to say.
Serial Joe …
Not all teen bands have colour co-ordinated rave gear and choreographed dance moves. On the flip side of the coin, there’s Serial Joe. These four teenage Ontario chums go in the opposite direction of most of their music-biz peers, rocking out in the rap-metal vein of Rage Against the Machine. Or at least they used to. On this second disc (actually an EP of six new songs destined for a U.S. debut album, augmented by six remixes of old tracks), the foursome drop Rage for Silverchair, toning down the rap-metal strum and clang for slower, darker tunes that feature stronger melodies, acoustic guitars and more mature topics. For a bunch of kids who can barely drive, these guys are heading in the right direction.
Is the end of July too late to pick a Song of the Summer? If not, I nominate Six Pacs, the irresistible, irrepressible leadoff track from Norwegian hip-pop quintet Getaway People’s sophomore album Turnpike Diaries. Funky, fresh and free-spirited, this sunshine-soaked singalong ode to the simple pleasures of life on the road bops along to a bouncy, Beckish folk-hop track, while singer Boots (no last name, just Boots) surfs the audio waves with laid-back boho vocals of equal parts G. Love, Shawn Mullins and Mick Jagger. And that’s just one of several superb summertime joints on this 12-track effort, whose hazy, lazy party vibe goes down as smooth as a cold beer at the beach. Did I say Song of the Summer? Is it too late to change that to Album of the Summer?
S.I.O.S.O.S. Volume One
Britney Spears could be collecting a pension by the time The Fugees make a new CD. So here’s the next best thing: Spooks, a stunningly talented and ingenious quartet from the U.S. East Coast. I’m not being vague; this quintet (four emcees, one female vocalist) like to play coy about their home base to avoid being pigeonholed. They may have a point; where they’re from isn’t nearly as important as what they’ve got — a debut disc so confident and compelling it’s scary. Ming-Xia has the sort of silky tone and panther-like sensuality that reminds you of Erykah Badu or Lauryn you-know-who. Meanwhile, the rest cut the tracks and rock the mic with some wise, flowing rhymes that don’t sacrifice hooks for gymnastic intricacy — and simmering, sinister tracks that have a live, jam-band feel to them. Forget calling them the next best thing to The Fugees? Just call them the next Fugees.