Gram Crackers

Noted for both his country-western allegiances and his tendency to push the music the way of Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe power-pop, North Carolina's Jim Lauderdale has worked his low profile and sizable critical respect into cult status, yet he still manages to have his songs covered by the Nashville elite of George Strait and Patty Loveless. His own albums remain underexposed contributions to the ever-expanding singer-songwriter pool. Whisper and Persimmons are estimable starting points.

Another essential is Richard Buckner's exceptional third album, Since, his most focused work to date. A habitual wanderer with a passion for cheap rooms and pin-drop-silent concerts, Buckner emerged from the San Francisco scene that brought to the world the death-wish poetics of Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) and Mark Kozelek's Red House Painters (Kozelek produced Buckner's earliest single) with a style far more deep-Texas than either of his contemporaries. Produced by Lloyd Maines, Buckner's 1994 debut, Bloomed, featured the singer's unusual serpentine vocal delivery matched with simple, doomed melodies that showed everyone his great romantic heart. During one of the album's many climaxes he sings, "I'm wasting away wondering if I'll always love you only" with a huffy, unexpected mix of fatalism and glee. That paradoxically sad/joyous sound was missing on his followup, the monochromatic Devotion + Doubt, a near-brilliant album that emphasized whispered late-night promises but lacked strong melodies to bolster the memory. Since recharges Buckner with surges of pedal steel, halting drums, and animated guitar. The tracks were culled from throughout his career and include several concert faves ("Jewelbomb," "Raze") that have incited listeners to actually nod their heads (these shows are quiet and reserved, I tell ya).

No group represents the alt.country movement better than Son Volt, although bandleader Jay Farrar avoids the tag. Formed from part of late-Eighties roots-rock outfit Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt has taken traditionalist values a long way; the band used mostly acoustic instruments for last year's brilliant Straightaways. Now back with Wide Swing Tremolo, they show no signs of relinquishing their crown. They've backed off the pedal steel a bit but they haven't forgotten the magic of chasing that elusive, imagined American-heartland rock dream. Laced with torrid rockers, the album also settles down to singer Jay Farrar's chosen slower speed.

The most unusual collaborative effort is scheduled for release sometime in November. The work of Vic Chesnutt was the subject of last year's Sweet Relief II, an album of his songs covered by some of rock's biggest names: Hootie and the Blowfish, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins. Proceeds from the publishing rights benefited Chesnutt, a paraplegic, while album profits went to musicians without health insurance. Now he has teamed up with Lambchop, a Nashville-based ten-piece-and-counting assembly that includes a horn section, vibes, and anything else they can cram onstage. Their album, The Salesman and Bernadette, was set to come out on Capitol until personnel shakeups at the label threw the disc into jeopardy; Atlanta-based Capricorn Records has since bought it. An unusually buoyant strain comes bouncing through on several cuts ("Until the Led," "Replenished"), but as usual it's the somber cuts that exhibit real power. "Bernadette and Her Crowd," "Maiden," and "Arthur Murray" are prime Chesnutt, full of weird allusions and unexpected melodic twists that express his chagrin with the world.

But weirdest of all these alt.country practitioners is Will Oldham. Known most for his early acting career (he played the fervent child preacher in John Sayles's Matewan), Oldham approaches his music career with a pinch of performance art. His interviews are either notoriously dull (answers of "yes" and "no" being the norm) or infuriatingly abstract (he has obviously made a close study of D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about Bob Dylan, Dont Look Back). He has regularly changed the name of his "band" (a rotating coterie of underrehearsed players) from Palace Brothers to Palace Songs to Palace Music to Palace, and is currently recording under the name Bonnie Prince Billy (go figure). The albums and countless singles appear with deliberately abstruse art, and the production varies from piss-poor to adequate. Oldham's voice is a natural disaster, cracking in odd moments; he reaches for notes he can in no way hit. Oldham attempts to re-create the mystery and hazy history of old field recordings. He records quickly, releasing his records with nary a pause.

His upcoming I See a Darkness, due in stores this coming January, is a continuation of this off-kilter vision. Though his medium of choice is the folksong, the presentation is pure pop-process jive. You're never sure where the put-on ends. Part of the appeal is his ability to let this prankish humor dissolve into heart-rending balladry. Even a song with a title as deliberately art student as "I Am a Cinematographer" has a haunting, majestic quality. But best of all, he built his fourth album, Arise Therefore, around an old, stiff drum machine, ignoring the machine's depressingly unbending rhythm for his own idiosyncratic sense of time. In no better way could anyone illustrate technology as a soulless, uncaring machine, plodding along indifferent to man's needs. Of course, Oldham probably chose to use it simply because it sounded screwed up.

Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale perform Sunday, November 1, at the Carefree Theatre, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach; 561-833-7305. Tickets are $24.75. The show begins at 8:00 p.m.

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