This twin-disc survey, compiled by Uncut’s contributing editor Nigel Williamson, tells you everything you need to know about “Americana”, alt.country, or whatever else you’d call it. It highlights the strengths of this fairly elastic genre?its rootsiness, melodic qualities, indie-style rejection of studio airbrushing, and tolerance, or even encouragement of, idiosyncrasy?while also exposing what drives non-believers nuts. In the latter category come a certain saminess of tone and tempo, a reliance on a narrow template of instruments, and the absence of enough genuinely original talents working in this field. For example, if Josh Rouse or Thea Gilmore didn’t exist, how many people would actually notice? Is any adjective stronger than ‘agreeable’ really applicable to the Radar Brothers or Dan Bern? Does BR5-49’s version of “Hickory Wind” serve any purpose other than to drive listeners back to the Gram Parsons original?
At least it gives the real talents the space to shine, like Steve Earle with “John Walker’s Blues” and disc one’s opener, Bob Dylan’s “High Water”. Sounding older than the hills and more inexplicable than the universe itself, the Bard serves up an object lesson in the timeless mysteries of American folk and blues. Lambchop hit a fragile, soulful note with “I Can Hardly Spell My Name”, The Flaming Lips provide “Do You Realize??”, and Jeff Finlin underlines his simmering potential with “I Am The King”, a starkly melancholic affair containing more than a hint of the young Randy Newman. Warren Zevon’s darkly Leonard Cohen-ish “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” isn’t his best-ever song, but at least it’s by Warren Zevon, while Silver Jews risk a tarring-and-feathering with “Horseleg Swastika”. Nice to see the criminally unsung Rodney Crowell in here with “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen”.
One encouraging aspect of this collection is the strong showing by the Brit contingent. Grand Drive’s “Track 40’s Gone” lights up disc two, hotly pursued by The Arlenes and the desolate “Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone”. A tip of the hat, too, to The Vessels and their cunningly off-kilter “Don’t Waste Your Time”.
Food for thought.