The Pine Valley Cosmonauts
The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills

Sure, the tribute album is a dead dog. But as long as record labels large and small are gonna keep trying to revive the damn thing, here's hoping they come off as well as this ragged, raunchy salute to Texas-loving western swing innovator Bob Wills. Although no one in the Pine Valley Cosmonauts -- a Chicago-based sorta all-star group led by Mekon/Waco Brother Jon Langford -- can even approach the musical wizardry of Wills's Texas Playboys of the Thirties and Forties, the octet at least captures the exuberant spirit and R&B swing of Wills classics, from "Big Beaver" to "Get with It." And it doesn't hurt that the guest vocalists assembled for the project are among the finest artists of what the Chicago label Bloodshot brands "insurgent country." There's a wild streak that runs through the set that distinguishes it from the early-Nineties Wills tribute overseen by the cornpone western swingers of Asleep at the Wheel, which sacrificed spirit for reverence.

A few old-school mavericks such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo are here, the former crooning achingly on "Trouble in Mind," the latter dueting with Langford on the sauntering, melancholy "San Antonio Rose." It's the new-schoolers who dominate the set, though, and many of them turn in performances better than anything you'll find on their own full-lengths. Edith Frost's Drag City-released debut from 1997 featured some bleak, lovely ballads, but her turn here on "My Window Faces the South" is a startling about-face, suggesting there's a bold honky-tonk maiden lurking somewhere in her neo-folky heart. Singing/songwriting hotshot Robbie Fulks misfired wildly on his recent major-label debut, but he redeems himself on The Majesty of Bob Wills with a rollicking run through "Across the Alley from the Alamo." And Langford's "Sweet Kind of Love" features what may be the best vocal of his non-Mekons career: sweet as the sentiment of the lyric, but tough enough to keep the sugar from hurting your teeth.

Maybe the most ironic thing about this successful effort is that, although Wills himself never worked too comfortably with women, it's a woman who walks away with The Majesty of Bob Wills in her front pocket. Kelly Hogan, whose The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear is one of the great overlooked long-players of the past few years, crawls into the pathos of "Drunkard's Blues" like it's a big, padded booth at the darkest, seediest bar in town. Whether soaring atop a lilting yodel or growling this quintessential lyric of betrayal, jealousy, and head-spinning intoxication, Hogan does the master proud, pushing the band through sheer emotional intensity, just like Wills used to do while yee-hawing in the face of the Playboys as they took one white-hot solo after another.

Does it make The Majesty of Bob Wills as great as the body of work left by the man who did as much for country and western as Elvis Presley did for rock and roll? Of course not. But you'll need them both to fully grasp the greatness of the man's legacy and the influence it continues to wield on today's honky-tonk firebrands.

-- John Floyd

Anoushka Shankar
(Angel Records)

Ravi Shankar, unrivaled master of the sitar, brought Indian classical music to the Western masses with his appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. Now in his late seventies, Shankar continues to perform and record tirelessly; in 1997 alone he released four records, and added two more in 1998. Now, though, Shankar faces competition close to home: His seventeen-year-old daughter Anoushka, herself an accomplished sitarist, makes her recording debut on this self-titled LP

The publicity surrounding this much-hyped record suggests that it's a kind of coming-out party for Anoushka, who performed with her father at Peter Gabriel's WOMAD festival and was awarded the British Parliament's prestigious House of Commons Shield. (Ravi and Anoushka also gave a rousing performance January 2 at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater.) But a closer look reveals that Anoushka is still very much in her father's shadow. On the album, which was produced by Ravi, Anoushka performs five compositions written by Ravi, and performs them with a sitar given to her by Ravi. All these details are revealed in the extensive liner notes, which were written by Ravi. About the only thing Ravi doesn't do on the record is play.

How does this affect the musical merits of Anoushka? It doesn't. Western ears hear Indian classical music mostly through pop appropriations (from the Beatles' "Within You, Without You" to Beck's "Nobody's Fault But My Own"). In its original context, Indian music sounds more like jazz, with repetitive, hypnotic melodies that are varied slightly to create shifts in mood and ambiance. The twenty-minute "Bairagi" is tidal. "First Love (Pratham Prem)" features a remarkable tabla duet. And "Tilak Shyam" and "Charukeshi" pick up the pace with fast-paced gats.

Gats, of course, are fixed string compositions. You'll learn this and much more by reading Shankar's liner notes, which offer a cogent summary of Hindustani music. In no time at all you'll be asking your friends: "Don't you think this Jhala comes rather early in the Jod?" Or, at the very least, grooving to Anoushka's soothing sounds.

-- Ben Greenman

Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
(Warner Bros.)

With a mosquito voice and reverence for the guitar gods of rock and roll, Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch is an unlikely underground rock icon. The wordplay of his lyrics and the intriguing, shape-shifting of his songs fit snugly into the indie-rock world, but Martsch and his supporting cast of characters (including ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, perhaps the finest altrock drummer since Dave Grohl manned the skins for Nirvana) ignore indie rock's "no guitar heroes" rule and unself-consciously celebrate the power of rock and roll. The group unites classic rock's earnestness and indie rock's nonconformity on its fourth disc, Keep It Like a Secret, tapping into the spirit and daring that fuels the best work of both genres. Martsch refuses to give up on the idea that loose song structures, good intentions, and angular pop/rock songs with personal lyrics can connect with a small subculture. Like Pavement and Guided By Voices, his songs are grounded in the rock tradition while exploring the rough edges, gleaning new songs from the source material of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. At the center of the record is Martsch and his uncanny ability to wrest new sounds from his Stratocaster.

And like the classic jam bands, BTS isn't afraid to throw in extended instrumental sections, complete with guitar solos that aren't showcases for technical skills, but sync with the overall songs. On "Carry the Zero," Martsch sings plaintively about errors in logic, both figurative and literal, while contrasting lonely, single-note runs with whammy bar guitar heroics and lightly tube-distorted jangly strums. Plouf's stuttering on the snare matches Martsch's vocal phrasing until the last two minutes, where the drums and guitars explore tangents that interweave and split apart, with Brett Nelson's bass anchoring the melody.

Built to Spill's goal, in some sense, is to blur the lines that rock was never meant to have drawn around it. Martsch is quite conscious of the effect when he quotes his forebears, singing, "You were right when you said, 'All we are is dust in the wind'/You were right when you said, 'We're all just bricks in the wall.'" By setting these words inside a blistering rocker performed in waltz time, he is making an unironic statement about the lasting impact that innovative rock can have, including records like Keep It Like a Secret.

--David Simutis


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