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(Zoe Records, $17.98)

I don’t know about you, but I detest listening to Christmas music in that four-week period between the day after Thanksgiving and December 25th. It’s all too much! Everywhere you turn, you’re inundated with the sounds of jingle bells urging everyone to rush to the mall. Bah humbug! Where’s the true meaning of the holiday season? Why, it’s in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s first holiday album. Carpenter intentionally avoids the typical saccharine, yuletide merriment. The only jangling of anything can be found on the waltz “Bells Are Ringing,” and it’s not even a bell, but a tambourine! If you didn’t read the album’s title (and avoided listening to half of the lyrics), you wouldn’t even guess this was a Christmas record, but instead another smart, laid back, country-folk Carpenter release. She tells the story of the three wise men, with a subtle response of “Hallelujah,” on the title track and finds herself in awe of the sparkliness that happens at “Christmas Time In The City.” Traditional carols, “Once In Royal David’s City” and the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” bookend the disc. In taking a page from Joni Mitchell’s Christmas classic “River,” Carpenter delivers an impeccable holiday collection.

(Decca, $16.98)

Jazz legend Charlie Haden returns to his childhood country roots on the excellent “Rambling Boy.” Haden sang with his parents and siblings on the radio in Iowa in the 1940s and on this, his first country album, he invites an all-star cast to join him in similar fashion. His four children, Ricky Skaggs, Elvis Costello and son-in-law/actor/Tenacious D member Jack Black are just a few of the stellar musicians who contribute. Similar in scope to the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, Haden digs in to traditional bluegrass and country from the 20s and 30s. Son Josh Haden movingly covers the heartbreaking “Spiritual,” and his three daughters sparkle with harmonies on “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “A Voice From On High.” A full-circle moment comes when Roseanne Cash deftly tackles her great-grand Uncle A.P. Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” and Elvis Costello sweetly waltzes to Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” Skaggs, with the Haden sisters singing backup, joyously sings “Road of Broken Hearts” while Haden, himself, finally steps to the mic for a gentle take on the traditional “Oh Shenandoah.” Packed with family photos and 19 superb tracks, the best cut has to be the too-cute-for-words two-year old "Cowboy" Charlie yodeling on his family’s radio show.

(Warner Bros., $13.98)

Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis has produced one of the most appealing debuts with her solo album "Acid Tongue.” The 11-songs she crafted defy a collective category.
The dark piano-driven opener "Black Sand" finds Lewis singing in a high soprano that modestly builds at times like a 70s arena rock act, while the touchingly hopeful "Godspeed" is reminiscent of John Lennon's solo work. "See Fernando" is a rollicking barnburner brimming with handclaps and an ending befitting a Spanish conquistador. Lewis excels at crafting characters and weaving narratives as on "Jack Killed Mom,” where a brother does in his abusive mother that plays like an all out sing-a-long. The loveliest cut is the title track. The simple beauty of an acoustic guitar, Lewis' plaintive voice and choral build up to well-placed harmonies perfect this track about being unlucky in love. She structures the song in to three clever sections and charms with lyrics like "I went to a cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe/He took one look at my face and said, ‘I can fix that hole in you.’” Backing vocal help comes from Zooey Deschanel, The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, and Elvis Costello, who steps forward to sing on the, well, Elvis Costello-like "Carpetbaggers.”

(Daemon Records, $15.98)

Indigo Girl Amy Ray is back with her third solo record, and she’s set aside her acoustic guitar and folk whims for a Les Paul and some clever activism. “Didn’t It Feel Kinder” isn’t overly kind as Ray vents about world violence and war on “Who Sold The Gun.” She lends her support on “SLC Radio” to a progressive Salt Lake City community station that exists amongst the Mormons of Utah. Throughout her honest decrees, Ray’s lovely voice and knack for structuring sing-able songs makes her message non-preachy and quite engaging. Along with the soap box musings is “Bus Bus,” a love letter rocker from a tour bus to her partner back home, and the passionate opener “Birds Of A Feather.” What’s so refreshing is Ray’s ability to clearly ask for what she wants and not get all mushy when it comes to matters of the heart. Ray is soulful on “She’s Got To Be” and sentimental on “Rabbit Foot.” Released on her own label Daemon Records she launched nearly 20 years ago, Ray has compiled an honest mix of pop, rock, soul and new wave songs that is probably what lesser musicians than she aspire to.

(Razor & Tie, $18.98)

This album of ten cover songs presents a subdued and serious Joan Baez, most appropriate for these economically and politically charged times. With simple instrumentation of drums, piano, and/or guitar, Baez covers songs by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and others that set the spotlight on her sympathetic voice. Though time has subdued her soprano, she tackles the world-weariness of the miner’s lament, “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” and Patty Griffin’s “Mary” with a simple straightforwardness. Hope springs eternal on “God Is God” written by another socially conscious musician, Steve Earle, who lent Baez three tracks in total and played the role of producer.

(Broadmoor Records, $12.98)

After 7 years apart, one of the original alternative country bands is back. Blue Mountain hails from Oxford, Mississippi, where southern rock doesn’t get any more authentic. The title track is dense with the blues and rollicking references to a "raisin' hell" night on the town, seedy motels and Delta legend Junior Kimbrough. But the rest of the album is more laid back. There’s a Laurel Canyon vibe on the opener “Groove Me,” “70’s Song,” and “Pretty Please.” The trio has a knack for crafting three-dimensional characters and stories and has evolved their sound with a wisdom and maturity that often comes with taking a much-needed break. It’s nice to have them back.

(Mint Records, $19.98)

Spunky Canadian quartet Vancougar kicks out some fine jams on "Canadian Tuxedo.” The disc contains the best kind of garage rock: rough and tough yet fun and danceable. These four plucky women steer their tracks with a desperate, driving beat alongside shimmering pop melodies, especially on the misfit-addled "Kids At School" and relationship turned south song "Distance." "Philadelphia" is a pop-rock ode to a cleaned up, skater boy who “…used to drink a lot/He used to rock out/He used to smoke pot.” The cacophony of noise on "Temporary Teamwork" distorts any chance to decipher the lyrics, but who cares!? It's awesome! Like The Runaways and The Donnas, Vancougar's sound is a blast!

DAR WILLIAMS "Promised Land"
(Razor & Tie, $18.97)

With clear as a bell sound, singer/songwriter Dar Williams delivers a solid, uncluttered album filled with tales of longing, love and her natural surroundings. Williams’ current role as wife and mother to a pre-schooler fuels her lyrics. "Buzzer" finds Williams wrestling with suburban life and wondering "…how everybody makes it through the daily drill/Paint the nails, walk the dog, pay every bill.” But finds comfort in "Summerday," a look back at the joy of childhood. Backing vocals come courtesy of guests like Gary Louris ("The Tide Falls Away") and Suzanne Vega ("Go To The Woods") and guitarist Marshall Crenshaw adds instrumentation on "It's Alright.” / Issue 88 - September 1018
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