Roots Revolution

A consumer guide for those who want the low-down on the best of the recent crop of music fundamentalists.

By Milo Miles

One of the enduring joys of popular music is the spontaneous appearance of clusters of good records in particular styles. Sometimes this offers a signal of a rising trend. Most often it’s a random fluctuation of release schedules. But the clusters always make one reflect on the state of the style. During the past four months or so, the outstanding cluster style was in what’s loosely called “roots rock” forms — clearly rock albums, but steeped in more rural, less electric, forms like country, gospel, blues, rockabilly and hillbilly boogie.

Most are by veteran performers, which stands to reason since those over 40 had more frequent exposure to the hard rural stuff growing up (yes, folks, even on the radio). But relative newcomers such as Jenny Lewis and the Dead String Brothers show that Joni Mitchell and Loretta Lynn, the Rolling Stones and Hank Williams Sr., all sound about equally distant nowadays.

Roots rock trades in unslickness, unguarded moments, real-folks-playin’-real-music-warts-and-all. Some true believers claim noncommercial purism is the essence of the form. Me, I think it’s a neutral quality. Roots rocking allows the players to stumble and slouch and trip on the stairs without making a mess, but control and forceful delivery are still required.

The big advantage is that it allows for shaggy personalities who can’t help becoming goofy or stupid from time to time, provided those lapses are redeemed by mother wit and infectious vitality. Even so, refinement, technical care and expertise are no barrier to whooping it up with the roots. The following guide is arranged from shaggiest charmer to most enjoyable pure-pro.

1) Howe Gelb, “Sno Angel Like You” (Thrill Jockey). For more than two decades in the Tuscon area, songwriter, guitarist and singer Howe Gelb has led a shifting gaggle of players under the name Giant Sand, though he’s often stepped outside for solo projects. He so prolific it gives him a permanent escape hatch: if you don’t like this tune or even album, there will be another one along in a minute, and if you’re bowled over by his bluesy/country/punky (Neil) Youngsterism, you’ll never find anybody who tosses together noise and melody with more ?n.

The bit for “Sno Angel Like You” is that Gelb and some of his pals do a few (unremarkable) new songs, some choice Giant Sand oldies and a few heart-worn numbers by his late friend Rainer Ptacek, accompanied by a gospel group, the Voice of Praise Gospel Choir. For such a wide-open operator, Gelb’s music is unusually sensitive to small changes, and adding the richer vocals plays up his tough-minded but childlike optimism. His ragged guitar twangs burn off any excess sweetness as he offers nuggets like “make sure your baby’s well tucked/in a blanket in the basket of a back seat/of a wagon that don’t run on air.” You bet, Howe.

2) David Childers & the Modern Don Juans, “Jailhouse Religion” (Little King). David Childers’s rampaging rockabilly roughneck is a more familiar personae than Gelb’s chameleon space cowboy (on one album cover, Childers offered a performance photo of himself with blood streaming over his face and chest from a cut on his forehead). But he stares down his demons and never wallows in hard times while seeming to never care if his shows climb beyond your favorite local beer hole.

It helps that “Jailhouse Religion” is an outright stomper, dumping the folky interludes of his previous releases. And while his weaker tunes (“Bottom on My Bottle”) sound cobbled together from the Really Big Book of Plainspoken Truisms, he can deliver a surprise punch like “George Wallace,” which gives the man his populist due even while it damns him as someone who pushed attitudes he didn’t believe in order to survive as a politician.

3) Richard Leo Johnson, “The Legend of Vernon McAlister” (Cuneiform). Richard Leo Johnson is a devoutly self-taught guitarist, which means he’s both open to possibility and occasionally naive (when he was starting out and was given an unmarked tape of tunes by Leo Kottke and John McLaughlin, Johnson thought it was all by the same guitarist). He’s worked out an idiosyncratic interpretation of blues and bluegrass and jazz guitar that suggests all these styles without ever quite becoming one of them. The downside is that he can slip into the empty prettiness of no-style, New Agey noodling.

“The Legend of Vernon McAlister” shows a typical bifurcated personality. Johnson acquired a steel-body guitar with the name “Vernon McAlister” scratched onto the back. He invented a tedious and over-elaborate imaginary history of the Depression-Era picker and his guitar. It reads like a parody of a passage from Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.” But if that reference means something to you, you should check out Johnson, because at his best he sounds like a lost performer from that venerable collection: a hermit loner, doing impressionistic, historic twangs about side roads, boxcar dreams, briar patches and angry angels.

4) Jon Langford, “Gold Brick” (ROIR). As the co-leader of numerous veteran outfits such as the Mekons, the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Jon Langford suggests Howe Gelb’s older brother, with the wool between his ear removed and hard-bitten (but understated) political dissent in place of easy-going romanticism. As the situation has gotten darker and more confused around him, Langford has become more pointed and determined. With flashes of country, garage rock, flamenco and reggae, “Gold Brick” sketches an America where you must find out you are lost to know where you are. He is the most grown-up punk there has ever been.

5) David Gogo, “Skeleton Key” (Cordova Bay ). Vancouver-area blues guitarist, singer and songwriter David Gogo does things so simple that almost nobody pulls them off any more: he conceives of blues as a form of rock and roll, writes a few clobbering originals like “Jesse James” that are instant outlaw-classics, picks less-well-known tunes by celebrated writers (Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense (That You Can’t Make Peace),” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Fool for You”) even as he covers, and conquers, famous tunes that seem like long shots (Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”). Oh, and he delivers solos like rhino charges. You can say he’s a worthy replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan. I’ll say he can take Albert Collins’s slot.

) Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, “Rabbit Fur Coat” (Team Love). As the lead singer and songwriter for the band Rilo Kiley and now on her solo debut, Jenny Lewis hasn’t missed a step up yet. Everything about her material gets better: songwriting, album coherence, penetrating words and thoughts, and now sweet, shimmying vocal boosted by the country/gospel stylings of the Watson Twins. As befits a former child actor, Lewis is more like a magic TV than a book: soap opera, newscast, sitcom, quickie biography.

But she makes every detail stick. Even “Born Secular,” and the tale of her mom and the rabbit fur coat. The remake of the Traveling Willburys’ “Handle With Care” may hardly replace the original, but it’s a vital signal: Lewis may be third-hand roots who learned from the stars of second-hand roots, but like them, she knows that was then and this is now.

7) PinMonkey, “Big Shiny Cars” (Back Porch). Country and bare-bones rock have fused so thoroughly and pervasively, it’s hard to recall that occasionally bands like the Beat Farmers and the Bottle Rockets get the punch and sass down so well the music is more than MOR fodder with muscle drums. Success is a matter of miniscule attitude adjustments, however. So while members of PinMonkey aren’t as desperate, angry or incisive as either of those older bands (I especially wish they used language a shade more surprising and less glibly pastoral) they can tell a sad story and get the blood pumping with a steel guitar, without expecting you to do most of the work.

If you’re hungry to neo-honky-tonk, take “Big Shiny Cars” for a spin. Those with more temperate taste may want to wait for the killer best-of.

8) Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”(Anti). The voice of Vancouver’s Neko Case routinely gets compared to Patsy Cline’s, but that’s misleading — not because Case doesn’t have purity and power in her pipes, but because it suggests she’s as plainspoken as Cline. Case loves country and folk in the same slanted way as Howe Gelb (who plays on this album), though her sensual whimsy and refurbished fables and biblical daydreams are more opaque (like girl with the parking lot eyes,” and “I own every bell that tolls me”).

So a lot depends on how much weight you give her small intimate passages, as well as her vocal conviction that she knows what she means and her flat-out pretty melodies. And she’s never assembled as many of them as she does here. If you turn off all analytic faculties, almost as much fun as Jenny Lewis.

9) Deadstring Brothers, “Starving Winter Report” (Bloodshot). When they don’t sound like the Stones doing country skronk, they sound like an outtake from “Highway 61 Revisited” or the Band doing honky-tonk soul (literally — they cover “Get Up Jake”). But for these guys, expert echoing amounts to a calling. If the songwriting had a bit more voltage and joltage, I wouldn’t need to say your fondness for Stones/Band country has to amount to a jones to love the record. The less addicted may simply like it.

10) Lee Rocker, “Racin’ the Devil” (Alligator). Sometimes what starts out as poses and mannerisms can become a kind of perfect disguise, if a musician sticks with them long enough. Such is the case with former Stray Cats bassman Lee Rocker. He and his quartet sound about as down-home, swamp-rat rockabilly as Snuffy Smith — but he’s a completely kickass cartoon, with zero frills. And I prefer these remakes of “Rock This Town” and Rocker’s own “Runnin’ From the Hounds” to the more haplessly ersatz originals. Every time the impulse arises to holler, “aw, Lee, cut the crap,” what comes out is “hey, man, gimme another HOOK!”

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