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Amelia White, Black Doves (Funzalo) Rating: 5
Todd Fritsch, Todd Fritsch (Route 66 Productions) Rating: 5
A tale of two countries. One country is dubbed Americana, known for its gritty, rock-influenced take on the world, its landscape dotted by bars, heartbreak hotels, concrete 'n' barbed wire. The other country is referred to in some quarters as Traditional, all fence posts, pick-up trucks, and well-worn roads where mom and apple pie are just around the corner. The dress-code is strict-you must wear a cowboy hat to be taken seriously. Both countries pride themselves on authenticity; each considers itself to be the embodiment of pure musical virtue. Can you guess by the covers of new records by Amelia White and Todd Fritsch where each resides? I bet you can. And if you open up Fritsch's you're greeting by a cattle brand reading "Caution! Contains Real Country Music!" If you say so, Todd.
Listening to Todd Fritsch and Black Doves side by side demonstrates the futility in getting huffy about the imaginary line between commercial and insurgent country: both realms are centered on easily identified images and aesthetics that appeal to genre adherents. Let's say this: if you're a fan of Steve Earle's more recent material, you'll most certainly get your kicks from White's fine, rustic compositions. If you think Earle's a pinko, go with Fritsch. Either way, you're not going to be disappointed. Both artists deliver exactly what listeners are a-hankering for. White's got a Lucinda Williams thing going on on "How Far Is Down", more inspired than derivative. The harmonies on "Afraid of a Kiss" are warm and familiar, as tried and true as lyrics about chain smoking and bourbon as "tonic for the hurtin'." Fritsch's debut is session-musician slick, his smooth, twangy voice front and center on the nostalgic weeper "Corpus Christi Callin'". His claim to fame right now seems to be his cover of Eddy Raven's 1984 hit "I Got Mexico". But playing covers, or having music written for your hunky, clean-shaven self is as much a hallmark of trad-country as writing your own shit is imperative for alt-. No matter which way you turn, you're safe in both countries.
J+J+J, They Hump While We Go Nuts (Circle Machine) Rating: 6
So tell me, how would you like to be listed as a "humper" on a nationally released album? There are six such "humpers" credited on J+J+J's They Hump While We Go Nuts, and the title of the album and the fact that it lists "humpers" in the credits probably tells you all you need to know about whether the album's for you. J+J+J consists of the boyfriend-girlfriend combo of Joanna Jablonski and Johnny Ludwig (the third 'J' is for Jesus, who plays a mean tambourine), and they're the couple in the apartment down the hall that's constantly breaking stuff, playing loud music, and laughing hysterically. This is synth-pop gone brown acid. When it's not being interrupted by random cell-phone calls and dialogue snippets, it's actually pretty catchy -- making a chorus that allows for singing along to the title of "High School? You Mean Inverted Caste System" is no small feat. Even with the classically trained fingers of Jablonski, nothing here is going to impress you with virtuosity or talent; it's just synthpop for caffeinated insomniacs who like to break stuff. Yes, it's an album with humpers, snowballs, yearbooks, shopping malls, a portable ultrasound machine ("We're going to look at your baby!"), and Jesus. What's not to like?
Ronnie Bowman, It's Getting' Better All the Time (Koch) Rating: 7
Ronnie Bowman isn't reinventing the wheel here, relying instead on a seasoned supporting cast that breeze through these tracks, including "On My Way Back Home" that sounds like he's subbing for Allison Krauss. If that doesn't turn your bluegrass/traditional music crank, then "Crazy Train" with its faster tempo holds its own against the likes of a current day Ricky Skaggs. Bowman does nothing to rock this sailing bluegrass boat on a softer, slower "The Mountain" that shows off some fine picking within the sweet melody and sweeter harmonies. The same is felt for the lovely toe-tapper "Till We Meet Again". Perhaps the early highlight is the swinging feeling to "Build a Little Playhouse" resembling a cover version of some Buck Owens song. Quite forgettable however is a tired rendition of "Old Flames" that pales terribly to the bite and punch driving "The Epitaph Of Lester Moore". Bowman excels on this album for the most part, but stretches himself wafer thin on the soppy title track ballad. Leave it to Vince Gill, Ronnie. If he keeps getting better on future albums, he'll keep getting well-deserved kudos.
American Minor, American Minor (Jive/Zomba) Rating: 7
From the look of them, the American Minor guys take more than musical influence from Neil Young and Grand Funk. Hair and all, there's much to enjoy in their debut, full-length roots rock collection. The best thing about these 11 original tracks is how laid back and breezy they are -- it's testament to the boys in the band that they've paid close attention to their predecessors. I don't know if it's Rob McCutcheon's earnest vocal or the gutsy writing, but everything here just sounds authentic and unaffected. Among the better tracks are "Mr. Queen" and "Don't Jump the Gun", both gloriously somber stories about the road weary and the down and out; "One Last Supper" challenges notions of war and capital punishment, and there's a great sort of "Scarlet Fever" throwback (only less tragic) in "Break". Perhaps the only thing missing to genuinely relive the record's beloved era is a call for revolution or a song about weed. Still, it's the perfect road-tripping soundtrack that does everything it should -- it rocks, it rolls, it knows its place. A nice one for summer. [Editor's note: Nikki Tranter lives in Australia, so she's enjoying summer at this very moment.]