There's something gracefully modest about the ten-year career of Kelly Hogan, a postpunk diva from Atlanta whose mastery of songcraft is rivaled only by her artistic range as a writer and interpreter. Her work in the early Nineties with the Jody Grind balanced rootsy traditionalism with altrock irreverence, and she brought subtle charm and charismatic melody to the bash-and-pop clatter of her next project, the Rock*A*Teens. As a solo artist, though, Hogan has displayed a bold, remarkable mastery of just about everything in the lexicon of popular music -- from smoky honky-tonk balladry to eclectic pop, from commanding soul stomps to Western swing weepers.
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On her second solo album, Beneath the Country Underdog, Hogan weaves her own evocative songs into well-chosen covers that span the gamut of The Band, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Paycheck. Recorded with Mekons frontman (and all-around renaissance man) Jon Langford and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Underdog finds Hogan wedding seemingly disparate works such as Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson's soul duet "Wild Mountain Berries" with the Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo," as well as a moving cover of Freddie Hart's forgotten 1971 hit "Easy Loving." The result is a song cycle of sorts that chronicles the highs and lows of love and romance, the torment and pain of loss, and the warm, intoxicating rush of bliss. It also stands as a stunning amalgamation of Hogan's influences. Her robust vocals on Willie Nelson's heartbreaking "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" turn the song into a smoldering R&B ballad as interpreted by Patsy Cline. Just as bracingly her originals are laced with both humor and pathos, as displayed on the forlorn "Crackers Rule" and the salty, swaggering "Gone" and "I Don't Believe in You." It's a stunning piece of work, a wholly successful album that nods to the icons of the past without pandering to retro-chic bohos or revivalist pinheads. Too bad country radio won't get within 100 feet of it.