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Love, Americana Style

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Ben Weaver -- Stories Under Nails (Fugawee Bird): Weaver's drawl is initially off-putting. When he sings, "My God, what'll I do with all this mess," the last word comes "may-uss" and you wonder if he's keeping it real. The words don't help on that score, as he piles images and provocative phrases up in ways that don't entirely add up, but they sure feel significant. His worldview is bleak, particularly in the random, seemingly pointless brutality in "John Martin," and the phrase "Appalachian Nick Cave" comes to mind. Still, a phrase like "You can grieve all you want / when you're in the arms of your lover" sounds so intimate and private it suggests a less dark vision will emerge with subsequent listenings. As it does, you trust him more.

The Drive-By Truckers -- The Dirty South (New West): It's hard to think of a rock band with more narrative-driven songs than the Drive-By Truckers, but The Dirty South tells stories of people dealing with life on the margins. Some bow up, some go under, but none of the characters in the songs just take it. The spirit of defiance is underscored by big rock riffs, more Neil Young than Lynyrd Skynyrd despite the three guitars. As serious as the lyrics may be, there's a lot of pure rock pleasure.

Various Artists -- Por Vida (Or)/Various Artists -- Parkinsongs 1: 38 Songs of Hope (Megaforce): Alejandro Escovedo cast a long shadow over the end of the last century, playing cowpunk with Rank and File in the early '80s, anthemic punk with the True Believers after that, and performing primarily as a solo artist since. The Americana genre emerged as much to describe his work as that of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt. This benefit album helps compensate for the income lost due to Escovedo's battle with hepatitis C, and it's an attractive introduction to his work. John Cale's take on "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and Chris Stamey's "One True Love" show how delicate Escovedo's writing can be, while Los Lonely Boys' take on "Castanets" almost matches the raw drive of the original. Escovedo fans, however, may find the versions very respectful, so much so that little is learned from these tracks. Parkinsongs, a two-disc benefit for Parkinson's research, is a fitting, consistent introduction to Americana artists -- Escovedo's "Castanets" is included -- but aside from the general theme of memory in the songs, there's little unifying here besides the genre. That may be a good thing, though, since the cover art and title suggest the album might be a bummer.

Jon Dee Graham -- The Great Battle (New West): Graham was a True Believer with Alejandro Escovedo, and ironically -- considering the racket he can conjure with a guitar -- he has quietly made a name for himself writing songs that are lyrically smart and often disarmingly vulnerable considering his Waits-esque voice. There's nothing as electrifying here as "Laredo" or "October" from 2001's Hooray for the Moon and 1999's Summerland respectively, but there's a sweet, meditative quality to the songs. "Robot Moving" is an ironic exploration of aging, and few songs this year are as moving as the unironic "World So Full."

Carlos Guitarlos -- Straight From the Heart (Nomad): In the late 1970s/early '80s, the members of Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs were as well known for great blues as they were for their drinking, so the band easily fit into the Los Angeles punk scene. Carlos Guitarlos was the Rhythm Pigs' guitarist, and earned his name because he'd never put his guitar down, even to sleep. Time and his habits weren't kind to him, though, and he eventually found himself homeless, then in the hospital facing congestive heart failure. Now, cleaned up, he's back with an album of the sort of blues that spawned swamp pop in Louisiana. Guests such as Dave Alvin, X's John Doe and Mike Watt make valuable additions, particular Watt, revving up the motor on "Ain't That Lovin' You." Still, the songs are the stars, sturdy vehicles that accommodate his worn voice well, and his slippery guitar soloing adds something valuable almost every time.

"Tryin' To Mess My Mind," Friday, Oct. 1, Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl: This Knights of the Mau-Mau production was more of an insight into the realities of garage band music than was intended. The genre is loosely defined as mid-1960s rock 'n' roll inspired by R&B, typified by the early Rolling Stones. The marquee acts, the Seeds ("Pushing Too Hard") and ? and the Mysterians ("96 Tears") ,were the most entertaining acts on the lineup not because they were the best musicians, but because they had vision.

In the case of the Seeds' Sky Saxon, it might be more accurate to say he had visions, considering his reputation for drug experimentation, a reputation his appearance did nothing to dispel. He wore bug-eye sunglasses, a flowing blue robe-like shirt with a patterned shirt underneath and a few scarves around his neck, and the songs took a turn for the psychedelic as well. His take on "Summertime Blues" ended with space ships on the horizon, a place Eddie Cochran likely never supposed the song would go.

The band, which didn't feature any original members except Saxon, kept the arrangements simple, recalling an incarnation of the Doors that liked to rock, but it was Saxon who made the set work. As worn as he looks and his voice sounds, he still has personality in his vocals, which made him more magnetic than the technically better singers from the local bands on the bill.

? and the Mysterians had more original members than the Seeds, and lead vocalist ? is less enigmatic than Saxon, but he's no less commanding a presence onstage. Dressed like a Latino Rockin' Dopsie Jr., he was the show, working the crowd and more in command of his star power than Saxon. Unfortunately, he also created the show's most unpleasant moment when he chose to literalize the anger implicit in "96 Tears" and commanded one of the Rock 'n' Bowl's bartenders -- who was then onstage to dance with owner John Blancher -- to get on her knees in front of the audience. When she did so, then got up as if it was all in fun, he barked at her to get on knees "and stay there for the rest of your life."

That aside, the show was a dance party, making it a crowd-pleaser the way it probably used to be. In their moment, these bands had grand, rock 'n' roll dreams, but their realities meant playing high school dances and socials at the VFW hall and hoping it would translate into something bigger. To that end, the band played its songs, songs you could stroll or bus stop to, and for a slow dance, they covered James Brown's "Try Me." Local garage bands the Souls of the Slain and Dr. Spec's Optical Illusion sounded like dance bands as well, playing the hits of their day. Their singles may be as wild as purported -- I haven't heard either -- but many garage band singles sound out of control because they played cheap guitars through cheap amps and made records in cheap studios, rather than because they themselves were truly radical. The pleasure of the Souls of the Slain and Dr. Spec's sets, then, came not from radical, primitive rock 'n' roll, but from seeing how much fun the bands were having playing together.

Big rock riffs underscore the spirit of defiance on the Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South.
  • Big rock riffs underscore the spirit of defiance on the Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South.

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