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CALIFONE: “ROOTS & CROWNS”
(Thrill Jockey Records, $13.00, www.thrilljockey.com)

Hauntingly atmospheric with enough clatter to fill a junkyard, Califone’s Americana song styling contains layer upon layer of sounds that happily demand repeated listening. “Roots & Crowns” is a dense, sophisticated and edgy album that raises the bar for alternative country, roots, rock, folk…whatever you want to call it. The members of Califone are music producers and film scorers, so it’s only fitting that the quartet would be game to try anything, even duct tape and paper clips on a piano’s wiring for the track “Spiders House”. Clanging of metal and popping percussion work their way through “Pink and Sour” while echoing footsteps, fuzz and the clanking of chimes kick off “Black Metal Valentine”. These sounds enhance the traditional instrumentation of violin, guitar, organ and drums without ever overpowering, while lead singer Tim Rutili’s honey-warm voice tops off the disc’s collage of intricate, clamorous beauty. Califone gets its groove on as it chugs along on “A Chinese Actor” and “3 Legged Animals” while lowering the noise quotient for the quieter, Neil Young-ish tracks “Sunday Noises” and “Orchids”. If ever your dreams had a soundtrack, it would be Califone’s “Roots & Crowns”.

THE HOLD STEADY: “BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA”
(Vagrant Records, $13.98, www.theholdsteady.com)

Hanging out at the mall, getting high, boredom…all parts of the suburban teenage experience and all prime fodder for the rock songs contained in “Boys And Girls In America”, the latest release from indie favorite The Hold Steady. With a bit of black humor and stadium guitar chords, this Brooklyn via Minneapolis quintet has revived the “concept album” with 11 tracks set in teenage wasteland. “The Chillout Tent” finds one young couple making out after being revived from too much partying at a music festival, while the Thin Lizzy-sounding “Southtown Girls” name checks Minneapolis streets and hangouts to meet girls. Lyrics teenagers can personally identify with is why rock n’ roll has endured and with front man Craig Finn’s flare for storytelling, those past the age of 16 have a front row seat to the awkwardness and depravity of adolescence. Adding anthemic power to the album is Finn’s style of singing, calling to mind an early Bruce Springsteen fronting The Replacements. What’s interesting is that the average age of The Hold Steady, whose members all have legitimate day jobs, is somewhere around 35 years old and yet they write and perform with the rebellious exuberance of kids half their age.

OLD TOWN SCHOOL OF FOLK MUSIC SONGBOOK: VOLUME ONE
(Bloodshot Records, $15.00, www.bloodshotrecords.com)

”Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” So said folk icon Pete Seeger about America’s oldest music form, folk music. Simplicity, perhaps, has also kept this centuries-old art form alive, along with generations of musicians and institutions like Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Since opening its doors in 1957, the school has dedicated itself to teaching traditional music from around the world and has now compiled a virtual lesson in folk history with 23 songs including ballads, work songs, hymnals and blues. The “Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook: Volume One” contains compositions from as far back as the 1760’s (“Amazing Grace”) and as recent as 1972 (“Aragon Mill”) performed by the school’s many instructors and nationally known musicians. Wilco’s John Stirratt sings “Wayfaring Stranger”, alt-country performer Robbie Fulks takes on The Delmore Brothers’ “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, and former Del Fuegos frontman and current children’s troubador Dan Zanes appears with the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor”. Listeners will be moved by poignant and compelling interpretations and gain an education from folklorist and Old Town instructor Paul Tyler, who provides a detailed history in the CD booklet of these enduring folk classics.

MINDY SMITH “LONG ISLAND SHORES”
(Vanguard Records, $12.97, www.vanguardrecords.com)

Born and bred Long Islander Mindy Smith has the musical chops that exist far from her original zip code. This singer/songwriter is more Nashville than Naragansett on her sophomore effort “Long Island Shores”. Filled with songs of where she’s from and where she currently resides, literally and metaphorically, Smith sings wistfully of family, love and never losing hope. On “Tennessee”, she expresses gratitude to the state she lives in (“It’s been ten years now and I’m rooted in your soul”) while the title track plays like a harbor lament to her east coast hometown and deceased mother. She’s more folk than twang but comes up with the countrified goods on “I’m Not The Only One Asking” and the jaunty “You Know I Love You Baby”. Smith finds her musical match in Nashville producer/musician Buddy Miller as the two duet on the love song “What If The World Stops Turning”. She has an effortless softness to her singing and songwriting without ever being precious or timid. In 2003, critics applauded her striking cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” for “Just Because I’m A Woman”, a tribute album to Ms. Parton who said at the time, it was the best rendition she had ever heard.

MORE RECOMMENDED LISTENING:

ANGELA DESVEAUX: “WANDERING EYES”
(Thrill Jockey Records, $13.00, www.thrilljockey.com)

This upbeat debut from Canadian-born Angela Desveaux recalls the melodious country sound of Lucinda Williams, minus the down-and-dirty, sex-starved lyrics William’s has offered of late. Pedal steel, sweet harmonies and jangling guitars shine throughout this far more innocent, straightforward effort of relationships and all the good and bad that goes with it. Desveaux slows things down with two poignant torch songs, “If Only” and “Make Up Your Mind”, and for those needing a primer for alt-country through the eyes of a girl, look no further than “Wandering Eyes”.

JOAN OSBOURNE: “PRETTY LITTLE STRANGER”
($17.98, Vanguard Records, www.vanguardrecords.com)

Soul/pop singer Joan Osbourne effortlessly adds country to her musical repertoire with this down-to-earth, mellow CD featuring six songs she penned herself and six others by the likes of Jerry Garcia, Patty Griffin, Roy Orbison and Kris Kristofferson, whose “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” finds Osbourne belting it out a la Linda Ronstadt circa 1974. Vince Gill, Alison Kraus and Rodney Crowell join in on the recording, giving Osbourne’s effort Nashville’s stamp of approval.

MADELEINE PEYROUX: “HALF THE PERFECT WORLD”
($17.98, Rounder Records, www.rounder.com)

Jazz doesn’t get more tender and elegant than when singer/songwriter Madeleine Peyroux takes to the microphone. Backed by piano, bass, guitar and occasional Wurlitzer organ, the Georgia native sings a few standards, “Smile” and “The Summer Wind”, and four original songs, one of which is the warmly sentimental “Once In A While”. Peyroux scores points for interpreting the unexpected Glen Campbell hit “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “(Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits but she saves her most achingly perfect interpretation for a duet with K.D. Lang on Joni Mitchell’s yuletide classic “River”.

WEE HAIRY BEASTIES: “ANIMAL CRACKERS”
($15.00, Bloodshot Records, www.bloodshotrecords.com)

Parents looking for kids’ music they themselves can stomach for hours on end must check out this delightful collection of animal songs from the Wee Hairy Beasties, a.k.a. Jon Langford (The Mekons, Waco Brothers), Sally Timms (The Mekons), Kelly Hogan (Neko Case) and Devil In A Woodpile. Under the guise of singing creatures, these indie/alt-country stars perform down home blues ((“I’m An A.N.T.”, “Housefly Blues”), traditional country (“Flies On My Taters”, “Road Safety Song”) and a helium inspired, a capella version of “Glow Worm”. Bonus feature includes a video of “Toenail Moon”, an animated work courtesy of Ms. Timms.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 62 - September 2097
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