Although readers of No Depression would say otherwise, the genre commonly referred to as alt-country never attained the popular status many predicted. Bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks and local faves such as Slobberbone created quite a stir more than a decade ago, but sales were marginal, and crossover to the rock and pop markets was extremely limited. Even with its heyday long gone, there is still some great music being made under the alt-country banner by bands willing to stray from the comfortable confines of Americana.
Hailing out of Memphis is Giant Bear, whose self-titled sophomore effort hit the streets early this year. Claiming to be the world's only five-piece orchestral funkabilly band, this playful quintet is certainly not as gruesome as that sounds. Incorporating the self-depreciating wit of prime Frank Zappa into songs that are as much pop as folk, Jeff White and crew play music best suited for late-night carnivals in out-of-the-way locales. Check out Giant Bear's hillbilly deconstruction of "Head Like a Hole" for a real sense of just how far alt-country's margins can be stretched.
Wolves and Fishes is the second effort from Georgia's No River City. Featuring the enjoyably neurotic songwriting of Drew de Man, songs such as "Two Sad Horses" and "Fancy Little Fire" should appeal to those who felt betrayed when the Old 97's morphed into just another pop band. Decidedly conventional, de Man's muse is still heartfelt and focused as he recounts various downfalls while organist Nathan Green and guitarist Eric Amata provide solid support.
New England is not an area best known for country, but Matthew Hebert is certainly a pleasant anomaly. Haunt is the newest project from the ex-frontman of the Ware River Club, and As Blue as Your Dying Eye is as somber a work as the title implies. But some of alt-country's best efforts are laced with the darkness and quiet desperation that inhabited the work of the genre's two figureheads: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. "Poisoner" and "Dirty Little Heart" are literate and unforgiving odes that play out like Steve Earle fronting Blue Rodeo.
Even though they are based out of our nation's capital, the ironically named LEAVING, TX. is as solidly Americana as any band south of the Mason-Dixon. Compared favorably to Drive-By Truckers, Chris Patterson and his three bandmates play sturdy and dirty twang-infected rock that should appeal to fans of the Bottlerockets. Anywhere on Good Roads, the band's impressive second effort, is proof that even Yankees understand the inherent power of the rural experience.