Straight Outta Boone County
Various Artists
(Bloodshot Records)

Straight Outta Boone County is Bloodshot Records' fourth anthology of artists playing insurgent country (the label's own name for a subgenre elsewhere hailed as no depression or alternative country), and it is hands down the label's best collection yet. The premise this time out is to honor the old Boone County Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride radio shows. Broadcast from a Cincinnati radio station from roughly World War II to Vietnam, the Jamboree and Hayride featured c&w legends like Merle Travis, Moon Mullican, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and the Delmore Brothers. To pay homage, Bloodshot has collected twenty contemporary versions of songs routinely performed on the programs.

The results, as on the three earlier insurgent country collections, are hit and miss, but on this edition, the hits outnumber the misses by a -- well, by a country mile.

Which is not to say the disc doesn't have its clunkers. To give the worst example, the boom-chuckin', cow-punkin' Scroatbelly needlessly changes tempos all the way through an excruciating "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me," and the disc grates badly. Straight Outta, in other words, captures alt country's often infuriating attraction to the novelty side of the country tradition, a tendency that can leave you convinced that some bands are as interested in playing dressup as they are in making music.

But when the music is as fine as the Volebeats' lascivious "Hamtrack Mama," Robbie Fulks's "Wedding of the Bugs," or the Lucky Stars' charming "No More Nuthin'," the only reasonable reaction is grinning big and singing right along. I prefer, though, the contributions from those bands that merely borrow country touches along the way to creating unique and sincere country-rock sounds of their own. Hazeldine's sweet and blue "I'm So Lonesome Without You" and Slobberbone's heavy, suffocating "Dark As a Dungeon" both stand out in this vein. Three cuts here shine even more brightly. "Bottom of the Glass," by Whiskeytown, stares deep into that glass and does not blink. Mike Ireland and Holler's "No Vacancy" uses a little rock and roll mandolin to tell an old tale of homelessness that's more relevant now than ever. And Waycross turns the slight and silly "I Wanna Be Hugged to Death by You" into a creepy, clingy torch classic. These cuts truly deserve the label insurgent country. If you've been curious as to what this whole alternative country deal is about, Straight Outta Boone County is an awfully good place to start out.

-- David Cantwell

We've Been Had Again

A band with just the right kind of hair. Bad hair. Thinning hair. Unkempt hair. Hair that bespeaks social incompetence. Hair that does not do lunch. Hair that places the burden of artistic excellence on, you know, artistic excellence. And here, the four merry men of Huffamoose are abundantly endowed. This major-label debut brims with sparkling melodies, crisp rhythms, and quietly poetic lyrics.

With its lush organ fills and loose-jointed groove, "Wait" sounds like a lost track from the vault of Donald Fagan. Craig Elkins's sultry baritone is the voice of a man in no great hurry, and it perfectly suits the noodling song structures crafted by his three mates, all former jazz men. Songs like "James" are built around delicious hooks, then given room to breathe, to evolve distinct tempos and moods. Notes are bent, beats syncopated, guitar leads allowed to range from lazy strum to staccato pluck. The galloping country vamp of "Like a Weed" segues into the piercing heartbreak of "Shattered," which runs smack into the whomping sarcasm and wiry guitars of "Such a Good Look." The jazziest of the eleven songs assembled here, "Speeding Bullet," zips from one open chord to the next, propelled by Jim Stager's thumping bass line and drummer Erik Johnson's edgy clatter. Lead guitarist Kevin Hanson provides a delicious dollop of wah-wah guitar on the infectious title track, as well as lending his vocal talents to a soaring, harmonized chorus.

On an album lousy with versatile musicianship, "Buy You a Ring" distinguishes itself on the basis of an irresistible melody and Elkins's lyrical panache. "What a sorry song," he croons, in this whimsical paean to lost innocence. "What a stupid idea/I write the songs that make the whole world think/About absolutely nothing."

False modesty, that. Huffamoose couldn't write stupid, insignificant pop if it tried. Unless, of course, they start devoting much more time to their hair.

-- Steven Almond

Pakistani Soul Music
Various Artists
(Harmonia Mundi)

"Funk is the means by which black folks confirm identity through rhythm, dance, bodily fluids, and attitude," writes Rickey Vincent in his classic book Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. "But," Vincent insists, "every booty is funky." Vincent is obviously referring to American whites, but the implications are global in scope.

Indeed, "every booty is funky" is a much more compelling call to the delights of "world music" than the current promotional literature, which positions the genre as a politically correct yuppie condiment. Like American soul music, Pakistani Soul Music is about rhythm and dance, love and lust, loss and the struggle to overcome it. Unlike American soul music, which is quite distinct from its forerunner, black gospel, Pakistani soul remains suffused with 700 years of religious history and ritual.

Represented here are eight groups, some of which have been around for more than half a century, all of which function something like hip-hop crews, expanding and contracting in pursuit of the perfect beat. There's the impassioned vocalizing and pulsing rhythms of Qurban Fakir and Ensemble, who perform every night at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif, a venerated poet and master musician. Their style is similar enough to gospel's call and response that American churchgoers would recognize it, and the way the chorus sometimes slides into wordless ecstasy parallels the slur of a snarling punk rocker.

On Bahauddin Outbudden Qawwal and Party's "Naat" -- a graceful air driven by harmonium and handclaps -- outpourings of devotion to the prophet Muhammad nestle comfortably with tales of failed romances. Even more compelling is "Dhol," by Pappu and Joora Sain. This percussion duo creates a whirling dervish of a trance by trading off the roles of steady rhythm-keeper and improviser. These guys redefine the meaning of the term "jam band." They'd drive the audiences flocking to the H.O.R.D.E. tour wild.

-- Lee Ballinger

Sand and Water
Beth Nielsen Chapman

Singer/songwriter Chapman assembles an impressive supporting cast on her third Reprise disc, including producer Rodney Crowell, guitarist Bonnie Raitt, vocalist Michael McDonald, and songwriter Joe Henry. The outing is also a pivotal one for Chapman: Her husband died last year, and most of the songs on Sand and Water center on this loss and her attempt to rebuild her life. It would be pleasing, therefore, to report the venture a success.

Unfortunately, that's not the case.
The album might better be named Syrup and Sludge. These songs are, for lack of a more appropriate term, thick. Plodding vocals, torpid pacing, and goopy, maudlin lyrics mar nearly every track. Warning: After playing this one, your stereo speakers might never come unclogged.

A departure from earlier albums, which veered toward soft country, Sand and Water has a new-age feel: lots of echoing vocals and pseudo-Eastern mysticism. The opening track, "The Color of Roses," is about as sentimental as the title suggests. A George Winstonish piano sequence introduces Chapman's breathy vocal line, one that calls to mind Sarah McLachlan on her worst -- her very worst -- day. The cut would be tolerable if it had a discernable melody. But it doesn't.

Indeed, for a set featuring such lush arrangements and smooth instrumentation, the songs themselves lack any real melodic structure. At times Chapman seems to find her notes just lying around on the floor, or maybe dangling from a cloud. She puts them together any old way.

Her lyrics are equally woeful. ("Oh, watch me go/I'm the happy girl, everybody knows/That the sweetest thing that you've ever seen/In the whole wide world/Is a happy girl.") I don't know about you, but when I hear something with this kind of bruising insight into the human condition, I think to myself: Who really needs Greek philosophy?

-- Keith Morris

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Steven Almond
Lee Ballinger
David Cantwell
Keith Lee Morris