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Guy Clark
Keepers: A Live Recording
(Sugar Hill)

Keepers is exactly right. The title of Guy Clark's latest disc suggests that what we have is a collection of a legendary songwriter's best songs, recorded live. And we do. But what makes this one of the year's best albums is that Clark takes things a giant step beyond merely revisiting fifteen of his past glories in front of a paying audience. On Keepers, Guy Clark offers up the definitive version of each.

The reasons behind this success are threefold. First, when Clark recorded many of these songs the first time around, he often sounded a little thin, raspy, and cracked. But in the second half of his career he has finally grown into his voice. His singing here is full and worn with wisdom and warmth; his voice is still hoarse but it never falters. Second, the acoustic band Clark has surrounded himself with for this live gig is intimate and loose and spontaneous in a way that Clark has never had in even his best studio recordings. Finally, the stories and asides Clark offers to his audience (he dubs one song "the antithesis of boot-scoot boogie") add an informal, front-porch charm to the proceedings, and the crowd's reactions seem to push the band to ever-higher heights. The result is an "L.A. Freeway" that out-escapes and a "Desperados Waiting for a Train" that out-goodbyes even Jerry Jeff's better-known covers. Each cut here, in fact -- even Clark's much covered "She Ain't Going Nowhere" -- now stands as the definitive version.

This shouldn't have been a surprise. There's always been something almost Zen about Clark's finest compositions -- always so in the moment, so at one with the task at hand. On Keepers, when confronted with pain and joy, he knows that the two are inseparable, and with great joy and pain he embraces "A Little Bit of Both." When he sings "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Texas Cookin'," the focus is simply on the enjoyment of eating homegrown tomatoes and Texas cooking. When he recounts seeing his first streamlined train in "Texas, 1947," he is the thrill of that moment. Given this bent to his art, it only stood to reason that a live recording might capture Clark at his best. So maybe the real reason that Keepers lives up to its name is that, when Clark performs his greatest hits here, he just performs them -- like nothing else could be more important than the task at hand.

-- David Cantwell

Jimmy LaFave
Road Novel
(Bohemia Beat)

"The hard part is making reality feel right," Jimmy LaFave's high, soulful voice sings over an acoustic arrangement that grows increasingly electric with tension. This line from the very center of Road Novel sums up the challenge that lies at the heart of LaFave's music. It also speaks to the divided soul of America, a place where reality takes a back seat to fantasy.

To understand the reality and romance of LaFave's music is to recognize his roots as a Tulsa, Oklahoma, musician, for two decades before his relatively recent recognition as a part of the Austin music scene. From the economically polarized and culturally overlooked hills of eastern Oklahoma, the promise of America (to this day) is tied up in the wide-open spaces and rambling skies that mark the way to California and that repeatedly symbolize freedom and fulfillment in LaFave's music. But as "Home Sweet Oklahoma" makes clear, these spaces mean nothing without others who share your dreams; more to the point, dreams held in isolation tend to tear lives apart. To clarify, LaFave playfully turns the image on its head with the brilliant title of the near-throwaway rocker, "Vast Stretches of Broken Heart."

So LaFave seeks to soothe and pulls it off, by evoking at times the soulful reassurance of Van Morrison, and at others the whimsical wordplay of John Prine. The music sticks close to familiar T-town traditions: bar-band rock arrangements flavored by country swing, bluegrass, boogie-woogie piano, Chicago blues, and soul. Particularly sublime are moments of dobro, banjo, and lead guitar work by Danny Barnes.

Though this album ends with an acceptance of darkness and loneliness, it also decisively rejects romantic individualism; two earlier songs declare the hell with being alone: "Loving you would always be the best." Jimmy LaFave's music emphasizes the messier aspects of the struggle and eases the tough lessons to be learned.

-- Danny Alexander

Plow
Ice Cream Flares and Rocket Sounds
(Hat Factory)

The band recently broke up, but when the dearly departed Plow hit its head-bobbing, hair-in-the-eyes resonant frequency, as it did a couple of times on this, its final release, the foursome whipped up a lovely pop-psychedelic maelstrom: a knot of layered guitars, hazy vocals phoned in from a galaxy far, far away, and atomic cymbals. The Baltimore-based band oscillated between midtempo songs ("Streamlined Swingset," "Fall," "Rosebud") and brisker-paced ones ("Dream," "Velveeta," "Blueberry Blue"), all of them built around Tom Moore and Sei Petersen's reverberating guitars. Along with bassist Laura Trussell and drummer Batworth (yes, just Batworth), Moore and Petersen created a minor whirlpool that gradually sucked listeners in and, as each track unspooled, slowly jettisoned them into the outer limits of the sonic cosmos. Plow bounded from the starting gate and never slowed down on the Lushlike "Meteor," while on the skittering, insistent "Your Eyes Are Drugs" the group recalled the harder moments of the criminally overlooked Pale Saints. When snatches of lyrics are occasionally decipherable -- all sung by More with appealing obtuseness -- they hint at a lot more than they actually reveal ("Clouds in my eyes" on "Storm Drain," for example), an effect that jibed nicely with the band's overall aesthetic, which seemed more intent on evoking mood than imparting any concrete message. (Hat Factory, Box 41343, Baltimore, MD 21203-6343)

-- Michael Yockel

 
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