Various Artists: No Depression: What It Sounds Like (Vol. 1)
Say what you will about the inherent limitations of a magazine devoted to a niche market, but at least No Depression has a sense of the history that led up to the alt-country darlings of today. That's not something you can say about too many other American music magazines; to get a sense that, hey, there was music before the current Top 40, you usually have to seek out British magazines like Uncut or Mojo. No Depression, on the other hand, acknowledges the Patsy Clines, the Ralph Stanleys, the Otis Reddings, and the Elvis Presleys of the world just as much as the Wilcos, Uncle Tupelos, Whiskeytowns, and the BR549s. Heck, a recent issue even devoted an excellent cover story to Little Miss Cornshucks, a post-WWII R&B singer who was probably unknown to the vast majority of even ND's audience.
So it's no surprise that the magazine's first foray into compilation CDs should try to toe the same line between the here-and-now and the gone-but-not-forgotten. No Depression: What it Sounds Like (Vol. 1) won't hold many revelations for faithful readers of the magazine -- they probably have most of these songs already -- but it might be a good introduction for those who are curious about some of the rougher-edged twang out there.
Compiled by magazine editors and founders Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock, the disc definitely feels like a mix CD that might be handed out to friends, as if the two said, "Let's introduce some folks to the sound without getting into something totally wigged-out like the Legendary Shackshakers. Let's ease them into it."
In that light, the disc gets off to a slightly misleading start, with Johnny Cash's rendition of Willie Nelson's "The Time of the Preacher", which boasts a sludgy rock backing by the like of Soundgarden's Kim Thayill, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, and Alice in Chains' Sean Kinney. The song does start the disc off with what, at first glance, appears to be a mild religious feel that continues through Allison Moorer's gorgeous "Is Heaven Good Enough for You" and the "angels are messengers" sentiment of Whiskeytown's "Faithless Street". What you really get, though, are a murder ballad, a song of doubt in the wake of losing a loved one, and an elegiac meditation on being adrift. Subtly and quickly, Alden and Blackstock point out that the genre can pack a surprising amount of texture and meaning into seemingly simple archetypes and motifs.
The genre's equally familiar lovin'-and-leavin' underpinnings also go on fine display. Alejandro Escovedo's "Five Hearts Breaking" is both sweeping and tightly wound, showing the plainspoken heart that's always at work in his music. Doug Sahm's "Cowboy Peyton Place" is all pedal steel, violin, and mildly psychedelic honky tonk swing as it tells the tale of a doomed triangle. Buddy Miller's "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" is classic Miller: fiery twang, with snarling guitar and wife Julie Miller's vocals providing excellent backing. Robbie Fulks's "Parallel Bars" is pure country wordplay, and I still can't figure out why someone like Garth Brooks or George Strait didn't turn it into some top-of-the-chart monster.
The genre's ladies get the spotlight next, with Neko Case letting it fly in a less than straightforward ode to Tacoma, "Thrice All American". Lucinda Williams teams with singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon for "Down to the Well", and Australian Kasey Chambers provides a gently insistent take on Matthew Ryan's "Dam". Case and Chambers are startling new talents who should be around a while, while Williams is, with Emmylou Harris, perhaps the closest thing the alt-country genre has to a patron saint.
For her part, Harris joins newcomer Hayseed on the rustic, hymn-tinged "Farther Along"; Hayseed's vocals are solid and earthy, while Harris supplies her usual angelic harmonies for a nice, plaintive effect. Continuing in the standards vein, the Hole Dozen (featuring Mark Olson, Victoria Williams, Murray Hammond, and others) tackle Nashville songwriting legend Mickey Newbury's "How I Love Them Old Songs" in charming, ramshackle fashion. Finishing things up is the Carter Family's original version of "No Depression in Heaven". The song is a fitting finishing touch, since it obviously gave the magazine its name (especially due to the fact that it also provided the name of Uncle Tupelo's debut album).
No Depression: What it Sounds Like initially doesn't seem like it holds any surprises, but reading the liner notes definitely helps convey the logic behind Alden and Blackstock's choices of these thirteen songs out of the hundreds they probably had at their disposal. Over the course of the record, they manage to include giants covering giants, newcomers who already seem restless about standing on the shoulders of those who came before, songs about religion, songs about loss, songs about bars, songs dripping with pedal steel, and songs brimming with rock guitar. All in all, No Depression: What it Sounds Like does a good job of illustrating just what the magazine means when they tack the tagline "whatever that is" to their masthead most months. Sure, there's a lot of alt-country stuff out there that goes in every conceivable direction, but maybe future volumes will cover that. Volume 1 offers a nice meat-and-potatoes introduction to the genre.