Country and Midwestern

The best of the alt-country lot salute the majesty of the past--while defining the future

The vocals are handled by a wide array of singers, who function as object lessons in the commingling of punk and country: Alejandro Escovedo, former guitarist in Austin's True Believers ("San Antonio Rose"), Lubbock-bred Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Trouble in Mind"), and the Handsome Family's Brett Sparks, whose joking vocal tone works perfectly on "Roly-Poly." Unlike the Cosmonauts' highly interpretive album of Johnny Cash covers released last year, the Wills record stays close to the sound and spirit of the originals; the musicians seem so in awe of Wills that very little is embellished, and none of the vocalists dares to try one of his trademark "Ahh-haa!" introductions. It's an honorable record, its songs covered humbly and honestly, capturing the joy and enthusiasm that pervade Wills' music.

Wills himself makes for an interesting alt-country figurehead. A sort of country radical during his band's World War II-era heyday (and onetime owner of the Longhorn Ballroom on Industrial Boulevard), Wills was a relentless experimenter who drew heavily from the brass horns of jazz and Texas border-radio mariachi, and he was the first country act who dared to place a drum kit at the Grand Ole Opry. If a lust for rewriting the genre's rules is the hallmark of alt-country, then you couldn't ask for a better mentor. Fooling around with tradition too much is a dangerous thing, though, and Son Volt's third album, Wide Swing Tremolo, falls victim to it; frontman Jay Farrar is now flailing away at tradition so randomly, he's making the same mistakes he did early on with Uncle Tupelo, trying on so many influences at once, he's having trouble corralling them.

On Son Volt's 1995 debut masterpiece Trace, the quartet jumped into the dark truths and soulfulness of country and came up with a blissful, hooky, and deeply sincere record. Last year's Straightaways started showing some creative cracks, which become patently obvious on Tremolo: The band's stabs at Southern rock ("Straightface," "Flow") and bluegrass-styled muttering ("Carry You Down") sound forced and unconvincing, while odd, nearly psychedelic instrumental throwaways such as "Jodel" (nearly atonal harmonica) and "Chanty" (processed acoustic guitar, played backward at points) only add to the confusion. There are moments that come close to the strengths of Trace, particularly the gentle feedback fuzz that graces "Strands," or the quietly dramatic lament "Streets That Time Walks," but where once Farrar sounded tragically worn, now he simply sounds sleepy. Worse, Farrar's greatest asset was as a storyteller, singing about the fears and passions of modern living, but he's now become nearly inscrutable. "Say hello to the blue side hanging around / Didn't think it'd matter, just force of habit," he sings. Well, um, howdy.

Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and Farrar's foil in Uncle Tupelo, has no such concerns. As part of Golden Smog, his occasional side-project collaboration with Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of Minneapolis' Jayhawks, he finds a place to kick his feet up and relax, having focused his serious work with Wilco and his magnificent collaboration with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie's ghost on Mermaid Avenue. A sort of Midwestern country-rock supergroup that once featured the Replacements' Tommy Stinson and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, the lineup now includes Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, and the music they make on Weird Tales is the very definition of repose.

Tweedy's own contributions are the charming, breezy rock of "I Can't Keep From Talking" and the folk-tinged epistle "Please Tell My Brother," but Louris is the only one who seems to have saved truly great songs for the sessions, particularly the lonesome plea of "Jane" and the heartbreaking, piano-laced closer "Jennifer Save Me"; sounding precariously close in phrasing to the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular," "Jennifer" is also the moment where the band's punk influences become apparent. That's traditional for alt-country, though: It's about bands coming to terms with their youth, looking at what came well before them, and trying to make it mean something in the present, even if they fall flat on their face in the process. It's a story of successes and failures, but always a constant searching. Precisely the kind of story you can wrap a country song around.

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