Michael Hurley
Wolf Ways
(Koch International)

The hermit shows his face, puts his name on a CD for the first time in close to a decade, and unveils a grand total of three new songs. I guess he was busy doing . . . well, whatever it is he's been doing for the last eight years. Still, any new Michael Hurley songs are welcome. Small, weird, whimsical pleasures, after all, are always welcome.

In case you don't know, Hurley has been an eccentric presence in hippie folk music since the late Sixties, having attained cult status among acid-folk aficionados for his quirky solo albums and his collaborative work with oddball songwriter Peter Stampfel. With Stampfel, Hurley concocted the legendary 1976 album Have Moicy!, a slice of cosmic backwoods lunacy that showcased the songwriter's sardonic wit. Although he has wanderlust tendencies that link him to American folk icons from Woody Guthrie to Merle Haggard, Hurley is neither a mouthpiece for community consciousness nor a champion of escapist macho fantasies. Instead, he writes whimsical songs about regular folks who eat, drink, tell jokes, and get the blues. And though Hurley is a loner, he is neither mysterious nor hard-bitten. Even his songs about dying are cheerful.

Since most of Hurley's previous albums are out of print, Wolf Ways provides a decent introduction to his understated, often poignant observations. Of the three new songs, one is a standout: "Letter in Neon" displays Hurley's ability to thread complicated emotions through a simple metaphor. There are also re-recordings of past Hurley highlights (including "Hog of the Forsaken," included originally on 1977's Long Journey), and a few taken from the 1987 album Watertower, wherein his laid-back expoundings started sounding lazy. Still, he's in good voice here, and everyone should hear Hurley's high-pitched werewolf howl, his sawing fiddle, and his ability to make anything -- even the rains celebrated on "The Portland Water" -- sound off the wall.

By Stephen Tignor

Mike Henderson
The Edge of Night
(Dead Reckoning)

Add Mike Henderson's name to that long and ever-growing list of Nashville artists who've written countless hits for others but couldn't buy a bottle of good Scotch with the royalties generated by his or her own recordings. His 1994 debut, Country Music Made Me Do It (RCA), was among the three or four greatest country albums of that year, a terrific fusion of rockabilly, blues, and hellcat honky-tonk. The album was a wonderful showcase for Henderson's mountainous Midwestern baritone, his tastefully dazzling guitar skills, and his ability to find new cracks along the hardwood floors of honky-tonk songwriting history. Nevertheless, the album belly-flopped into a pool of critical praise but marketplace indifference. RCA, naturally, dropped him faster than you can say "cutout."

Henderson's maiden effort for the independent Nashville label Dead Reckoning not only betters his brilliant debut, it establishes him among country's echelon of determined and adventurous voices, from Joe Ely and Guy Clark to Dave Alvin and Jim Lauderdale. Although on Country Music he stuck close to the traditions of Hank, Lefty, and Ernest, The Edge of Night finds Henderson flaunting the virtuosity of his eclectic country approach: After opening with the romp-and-stomp rockabilly anthem "I Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down," he draws from the deep well of Stax/Volt soul for "Wherever You Are," then turns in an acoustic-slide version of Blind Willie McTell's prewar classic "Nobody's Fault but Mine" that could be the best piece of Delta-drenched gospel blues you'll ever hear from a white guy.

Although he pulls from the blues and gospel as effortlessly as country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers did 70 years before him, Henderson is neither a furrowed-brow purist nor a dust-cloaked archivist. Rather, he acts as a conduit for the various strains of indigenous Southern music too often ignored in Nashville, whether it's a hard-swinging tribute to Waylon Jennings ("Honky Tonk Vacation") or a searing dose of gospel sanctity ("This May Be the Last Time," the Pops Staples standard). Traditions are being upheld by countless artists currently dabbling in rural American music; Henderson, however, is among the few to actually add his own distinct mark to those traditions.

By John Floyd

Possum Dixon
Star Maps

You have to admire a band willing to wed the campy staccato synth of early Devo to the nasty thrash guitar of vintage Buzzcocks. Then again, admiring this spunky Los Angeles quartet is a lot easier than listening to its entire major-label debut. Star Maps is A well, how to put it? A a conflicted record blessed with moments of joyfully goofy rock, yet burdened with excruciating noise-pop experiments.

This is music that, for better or worse, merits the worship only of college students. Rob Zabrecky sings as badly as Jonathan Richman and shares that perennial schoolboy's cheeky touch, although Zabrecky's lyrical range is limited to lousy work and meager romantic options. Celso Chavez yanks plenty of sonic intrigue out of his guitar, contributing squeals and buzzes that deftly intersect Robert O'Sullivan's piping keyboards on songs such as "Emergencies About to End" and the title track. And Byran Reynolds's drumming is pleasingly brawny throughout.

But Possum Dixon's nerd-pop shtick wears thin by track twelve, at which point the stronger cuts come off as clever recombinations, while the weaker ones sound like souped-up theme songs from Fifties TV. The final verdict on this Possum? Leave it to Beaver.

BY Steven Almond

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