Dwight Yoakam|Lucero

How good was Dwight Yoakam in Hollywood Homicide as rap mogul Isaiah Washington's creepy bad-cop henchman? Yeah, you're right, not that good. Half-convincing glower aside, Population: Me, the part-time actor/full-time honky-tonker's latest, is another entry in one of the most consistent bodies of work in modern country music. I'd tell you that he's still got it if he ever seemed in danger of losing it; not even a departure from longtime home Reprise Records to his own improbably named Electrodisc imprint has shaken the dude's devotion to his beloved Bakersfield bounce. Willie Nelson guests on "If Teardrops Were Diamonds," in which the two hangdog vets try to out-metaphor each other, and as he did on his nifty 1997 covers album, Under the Covers (with a hot blonde-with-boots, if sleeve-art memory serves), Yoakam brings a hardscrabble elegance to a song not of his own writing: Burt Bacharach and Hal David's highly lonesome "Trains and Boats and Planes," which is only sadder for the tang of twang.

Young Memphis upstarts Lucero have demonstrated a similarly hardy sense of sonic consistency; several times I've seen the band roar through multi-hour sets that played like long-ass mash-ups of shaggy Neil Young strum and scruffy Jawbreaker throb. The group's new That Much Further West (its first for New York indie Tiger Style) is a little flatter than last year's Cody Dickinson-produced Tennessee, but it still feels more vital than most of the sad-sack cowpunk that passes my way. And unlike Yoakam, hunky singer-guitarist Ben Nichols doesn't need a cowboy hat or a half-convincing glower to indicate he's serious--his ravaged rasp proves the point just fine.

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Mikael Wood

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