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Recordings

Live Tracks
(Freedom)

The Derailers
Jackpot
(Watermelon)

These two albums prove that your arms are never too short to shake hands with the upper management of Hillbilly Heaven. How else do you explain the spirit of Buck Owens' majestic late guitarist Don Rich entering the body and fingers of the Derailers' crackling twangmaster Brian Hofeldt? How else could Wynn Stewart's whompin' California honky-tonk sound so permeate the being of lead singer and principal songwriter Tony Villanueva?

Critically overlooked since relocating to Austin, Texas, from Oregon a few years back, the Derailers are finally getting the recognition they've self-effacingly earned night after night at Austin's venerable local roadhouse the Broken Spoke.

These two recent releases showcase the core trio's joyous harmonies and Buck-ed up songwriting in two vastly different settings. Those who hanker for a raw-and-ready slice of the country pie will cast their vote for Live Tracks, a crashing, 14-song set of the band's stage favorites like "Big City Blues," "Lies, Lies, Lies" and "Jackpot," laid on fast and informal in Austin radio station KUT's Studio 1-A in October 1994.

Ex-Blaster Dave Alvin lends a helping hand as producer of Jackpot, a slicker, more stoic affair which includes new studio recordings of all of the aforementioned tunes, plus a grab bag of newer ballads like the haunting "Desperate Ways."

When viewed against the chilling backdrop of Garth and Wynonna, both albums are mighty compelling alternatives to the washed-out mainstream-country thang. Jackpot will make you smile. Live Tracks will steal your honky-tonk heart.--Kevin Roe

The Derailers are scheduled to perform on Thursday, April 18, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.

Gavin Friday
Shag Tobacco
(Island)

The topic of love has been drawn and quartered in the annals of pop over and over again. Few contemporary songwriters can put a fresh spin on the pieces, but Dublin, Ireland's Gavin Friday does so with twisted brilliance.

Set in Dublin sometime in the 21st century, Friday's new concept album Shag Tobacco presents garish, cinematic close-ups of various love junkies who've been struck by Cupid's poison eros. Friday narrates their tragic stories in hushed tones over trancey, tantalizingly slow grooves. Dabbling in the cabaret stylings of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, the ex-Virgin Prunes front man also gives a nod to Bono, with whom he grew up in Dublin.

Most of the gender-bent characters who stumble through the piss-and-beer-sodden streets of Friday's futuristic world are based on real folk, such as the washed-up drag queen Mr. Pussy, who hosted the floor show in Friday's now-defunct cafe. Others are horribly real stereotypes, like the self-sacrificing suburban housewife who takes herself out with a bottle of Valium.

Tragic as this Eurocabaret may seem, there's plenty of room for celebration as well. Consider the highly danceable "You, Me and World War Three," an ironic commentary on the end of the world, when the need for love is at its most urgent and "there's no time to be blue." Also vivid and excellent is "The Last Song I'll Ever Sing," which comes from the perspective of a dying man who joyfully seizes that tacit moment just before death, when priorities come crashing into clear view.

At times, Friday seems content to hold his subject matter at arm's length, such as the pretentious "Caruso," in which he tosses out coy Eurotrash phrases like "Oh Dada, Oh Dali, un chien de Lou Lou." Other times, he submerges himself in the tracks, like on the jazzy, languorous "Shag Tobacco" (slang for a postcoital cigarette). "You're my amphetamine, you're my lover," he whispers, revealing his own addiction to amour.

Dignified even when he's most vulnerable, Friday is clearly an artist of uncommon depth and honesty. File this one under best unknown albums of the year.--Leigh Silverman

Cigar Store Indians
Cigar Store Indians
(Landslide)

Over the boosterish course of its rise to the top of the slick New South heap, Atlanta has nearly shed its cultural Southern accent--a trend that's most painfully obvious in the mind-numbing blandness of the city's country-music scene. But it's so easy to beat up on the fast-food country stylings of favorite sons Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson that you can miss out on the thriving neorockabilly and honky-tonk scenes.

Alongside such local notables as the twang-happy Vidalias, Redneck Greece Delux and the Delta Angels, the Cigar Store Indians are a long-overdue blast of hook-heavy, rockabilly stomp. Front man Ben Friedman (a familiar rocker about town) crafts exquisitely hummable honky-tonk rave-ups that twitch and soar, thanks to Yoakamesque harmonies and the stuttering lead guitar of Jim Lavender.

Songs like "This Town Ain't Cool," "Pinstripe Suit" and "Crazy About You" don't cover much new lyrical ground, and the Indians veer a little too close to the Pulp Fiction zone on a couple of moody, minor-key surf send-ups. But these minor grievances are easy to forgive when you're zooming around on a sunny afternoon, screaming along with Ben and the band, cranking out a phat air-Telecaster lead and wondering how much the ticket is for steering with your knees.--Kevin Roe

Babble
Ether
(Reprise)

In most cases, listening to new music by Eighties synth-pop stars is like waking up with a decadelong hangover to hear what fools we made of ourselves--how could we have listened to such a thing?

Bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet clearly need to stop playing Lazarus. Come on--they weren't that good to begin with. On the other hand, the music of smarter Reagan-era pop groups like the Thompson Twins has worn well. "Lies" and "Doctor Doctor" are still worthy flashbacks. But unlike Duran Duran--a band that refuses to admit the Eighties are dead and buried--the Thompson Twins knew when to quit and refocus.

Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie, two of the three Twins, disbanded the group at the turn of the decade and set off to reinvent themselves--both as people and as musicians. The two journeyed to India and then to New Zealand, where they built a coastal fortress and went tribal: absorbing Maori rhythms, writing a lot of poetry and constructing their own recording studio.

Bailey and Currie reemerged in 1993 as Babble. Ether, the band's second album, is an erotic aural walkabout of spacy sounds and even spacier lyrics. Ambient synth effects and classic Indian instrumentals swirl over driving funk rhythms to produce an eerie and powerful whole--this is rave music for the morning after. Babble's dreamy melodies have the same penetrating yet soothing effect as the best trance-techno, especially when Currie is at the mike. Bailey sounds too much like his old self, and the spell is partially broken whenever he opens his mouth.

For those who fondly remember the Thompson Twins, songs like "Come Down" will sound hauntingly familiar, as Bailey's voice flexes with the same strength (and nearly the same lyrics) as the Twins' hit "Lay Your Hands on Me." But this album is no rehash job. It's clear from potent tracks such as "Just Like You" that Babble has struck a thoroughly modern balance of high-tech presentation and spiritual intent.

Now if only Simon Le Bon would disappear to Borneo, we might have a useful trend on our hands.--Tony Ortega

Woody Guthrie
Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti
(Smithsonian Folkways Records)

In 1945, Smithsonian Folkways Records founder Moses Asch commissioned Woody Guthrie to document, in song, the tale of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchist labor organizers who were wrongly convicted of murder and executed in Boston in 1927.

Compare that case to the O.J. Simpson trial, with its publicity circus, questionable witnesses, tainted evidence (the 1927 trial even included a hat that didn't fit) and the deep, social divisions both cases brought to light. Better yet, compare Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti to the recently released The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen's Guthrie-esque look at the hot issues of immigration and worker exploitation; still hot subjects after all these years. From any angle, this album of 50-year-old songs that tells a 70-year-old story is clearly as relevant today as it ever was.

With just a rambling guitar and a raw voice, Guthrie offers 11 takes on the first "trial of the century." Using stock folk melodies and techniques, the master songwriter starts by painting a backdrop of postwar prosperity and growing worker unrest ("The Flood and the Storm"); then introduces his characters ("Two Good Men"); gives the details of the trial ("Suassos Lane," "You Souls of Boston"); explains the political motivations at work ("Red Wine"); reports the city's mood ("Root Hog and Die"); relays the doomed pair's last plea of innocence ("Vanzetti's Letter"); and ends with musings on a world choked with misunderstanding ("We Welcome to Heaven"). Guthrie--a people's poet if there ever was one--never combined his humanism and politics better than he did here. This is one reissue that cries out to be heard.--Roni Sarig


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