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Will this year's best local records survive the millennium?

The eleven originals and one cover on the album show off the band's range: sensibilities run from old-old school Hank Williams territory ("Gone Crazy Blues") to caustic Folsum Prison strains ("A Few Words to Remember Me By"), to loping Dwight Yoakam-style updates ("The Only Thing She Left Me"), never straying into the blighted, slick swamp of new-school young country. Guitar prodigy-frontman Hillyer obviously knows his shit. That is to say, he cultivates a proper reverence for the good stuff and it shows in his high-trad songwriting. The guys still play over at Adair's occasionally, when they're not on the road or gracing some bigger stage. For the Monday nights they don't, pop this one into the CD player and let it go to work on your Pearl Light-drenched soul.


Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.
Centro-matic's Will Johnson showed off every side of his personality on two great albums this year.

Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be
Little Grizzly
(Quality Park)

It's hard not to think of George Neal as Will Johnson's kid brother, doggedly following a trail that's already been blazed. Like Johnson and Centro-matic, Little Grizzly started as a one-man show, just Neal and his guitar. And also like Centro-matic, Little Grizzly has matured into a full band, a process that's documented (sort of) on Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be. The comparison is made that much easier since Johnson and his Centro-matic bandmate Scott Danbom both appear on Little Grizzly's debut. But the similarities end at the CD booklet, since it's clear from the soft-focus melodies here that Neal and his band don't need to use Centro-matic as a crutch. The songs mutate from lo-fi choruses ("Next to Nothing") to play-fuckin'-loud rockers ("Fission Song"), and Neal sings them all in a high-pitched drawl that's not unlike Tripping Daisy's Tim DeLaughter, though not as grating. As if that needs to be said.


Noise and Smoke
Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks
(Kilroy Records)

Figures that Little Jack would finally get around to making a live record, since that's always been the place to catch his band. And unlike most live records, Noise and Smoke is a pretty close approximation of Steve Carter and his Young Turks in their element, Carter proving that Tom Waits for no one except him. Sure, it's not as good as, say, 1994's World of Fireworks, but Little Jack probably won't ever be able to top that record. Let's just be happy he keeps trying to.


Meredith Miller Band
(Binkey Records)

It's pronounced "Madam, I'm Adam," if you're struggling. One thing you never struggle with, however, is the music of young Miller herself: wry, comforting, impossible to categorize but never disconcerting. For a handful of years now, the unassuming Miller has been writing and performing songs that roll out so fully formed and relaxed that you might think of them as Athenas sprung all-growed-up from the head of Zeus. She can croon (and man, what a voice), observe, folk-out, and meditate with the thoughtfulness of a young woman who gives herself time to think about what she's saying long before she says it. There ain't a dumb or impulsive lick in sight. Flanked by guitar great Reed Easterwood, bassist Dave Monsey, and drummer Bryan Wakeland, Miller's sound has gotten fuller these past couple of years, as is evident on madami'madam, which morphs her previously folkie-cum-indie angle into twelve songs you can sink all of your teeth into.

From the lilting twang of the opener "This Time" to the lonely waltz-reverb of "Your Laugh" to the bluegrassy "My Thinking," Miller never betrays her affection for roots rock, but she never quite buys the cow. Miller's trump card is her power to absolutely haunt: When she is sad or sentimental, you'd better make room in your schedule for heavy sighing. Just listen to "Flannel," a thickly dreamlike homage to dear old dad, and try not to let your guts roil up in knots. We should all rejoice that the mesmerizing "Prince" -- a song that so perfectly captures the downside of falling for someone that it should be required listening for, well, everyone -- is here. And that Miller is still in Dallas.


Little Lost Girl Blues
(Cheeky-I Productions)

Here's where Chonita "N'Dambi" Gilbert stepped out from her homegirl Erykah Badu's shadow and shows she's more than a backup singer with a cool 'fro. Seriously, if Gilbert had made this record before Baduizm hit stores, Badu would be trying to do the same thing. But even though Gilbert toured with Badu, this is no cheap imitation of the original. Gilbert's soul is full of jazz, and both are the kind that people stopped trying to make a long time ago. Lord knows it's harder to launch a musical career here that doesn't revolve around loud guitars, yet Gilbert has much more of a chance than anyone, if only because now that Badu's opened a few doors for her, her talent will keep her walking through them.


Fight Songs
Old 97's
(Elektra Records)

Figured by now this disc would be a platinum sweetheart, especially after hearing "Nineteen" the first time -- now there's something for the WB audience in search of its next boy-band. And for a while there, "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" seemed destined to become the Hit Single it never quite turned out to be; whenever it came on the radio, at least around these parts, it sounded like something that had been there forever, like Ron Chapman. And it only sounded better on TV, where the boys acquitted themselves nicely; guarantee you that's the only time we'll ever watch The Tonight Show by choice. But sooner or later, talent catches up to the most promising chart-climbers: Everything here only sounds as though it belongs on the radio, when in truth there's real depth to these shallow swimmers -- "Oppenheimer" included, if not especially. Turns out all those years of pretending to be country only reaffirmed Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples' love for pop, if by "pop" one means the jingle-jangle-tingle variety and not the populist brand that sacrifices content for form.

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