This page is part of an opinionated overview of "alt.country" music, with record reviews by me, Joe Sixpack... Naturally, it's a work in progress, and quite incomplete, so your comments and suggestions are welcome.
This page covers the letter "P"
Praised as avatars of an indie-rock/altabilly revolution, the Palace Songs/Palace Music/Palace Brothers nexus around songwriter Will Oldham has its ups and downs... I place 'em pretty firmly in the "rock" camp, particularly on a meandering slowcore outing like this... Yes, there are traces of a Neil Young-ish fragility and sorta-folk sensibility, but its pretty navel-gazey and not that distinctly rooted in country traditions, at least as far as my rigid little mind can perceive. Not that I'm dissing them, mind you -- I do like it when Palace get all power-poppy and melodic, and some of the more "country" stuff can be fun. This particular album is a little too wanky and self-indulgent for me, but I can still see the appeal it would hold for someone of the right temperament.
This odds'n'ends set has stuff from 1993-97, and highlights Oldham and pals in a variety of moods, ranging from silly-proggy stompers like "Riding," to more doleful, contemplative moments. Overall, the improvisatory songwriting and loose-limbed noodling still strikes me as a bit self-indulgent, and if any of these songs are actually about anything, the meaning has eluded me... But, hey, who am I to criticize such obvious genius? Seems like these guys are capable of creating much more cohesive, resonant music, although I'm sure to do so would violate some deeply rooted, postmodern artistic principles. Thus, for folks who are on the band's rather rarified wavelength, this is a super-duper treat; other listeners should feel free to express their own boredom, if so compelled.
Amiable latter-day honkytonk/western swing, ala Hank Thompson... A little rough around the edges, but fun nonetheless. Paquin is a co-founder of the long-lived cajun band, The Sundogs, heard here in a more distinctly country mood.
England's ascerbic Graham Parker, a punk-era/New wave-ish rocker who's always been a little hard to pin down, returns here with a sharp set of alt-countryish tunes that may be his best album in many a moon. The lyrics are typically dense and brainy, but Parker adopts enough of old-school country's keep-it-simple ethos that most songs have sharp hooks and clean choruses. He's backed here by Tom Freund, with Don Heffington and Ben Peeler of the band the Wallflowers, who have enough of an alt-country vibe to bring in some twang while zeroing in on Parker's strengths as a rocker. The addition of Americana diva Lucinda Williams seals the deal -- she helps Parker hit a homer with "Cruel Lips," and even those folks who might not have been huge Graham Parker fans in the past may be surprised by the strength of this new album. Definitely worth checking out!
This 5-song EP is basically a self-produced, self-released demo, but it sure has some damn fine country songs on it. With all-new, original gems like "Disaster Waiting To Happen" and "A Heart Is A Terrible Thing To Waste" (stuff that George Jones might have sung back when he was a hillbilly whippersnapper) as his calling cards, Mr. Parker's definitely got my attention. Can't wait to hear what he does next. (For more info, check out his website, itsgregparker.com)
Whiteboy roadhouse soul. Like a kinder, gentler Delbert McClinton; Parnell acquits himself well on this greatest hits package, though very few of the songs really grab me emotionally. The tightly crafted production feels kinda flat, for some reason... plus I've never been a big fan of talky lyrics, and this album's full of 'em. I know I'm supposed to like this guy, but his attempts at building up country-rock anthems never really seem to take off. Character flaw on my part, I'm sure. (More of Parnell's albums are reviewed in my Commercial Country section.)
A strong set of smoky southern soul and roadhouse blues-tinged twangy pop... It's not really my kind of music, but I can tell this is a pretty strong record for the style. Fans of Delbert McClinton, Gary Stewart and Little Feat are gonna want to check this one out. There's grit, fire and the passion of a true believer, along with some really solid musicianship. Worth checking out!
Gram Parsons - see artist discography
Meh. Color me unimpressed. This is basically Wilco/Son Voltish soft indie rock with an added twangy sheen -- some okay pedal steel work added onto a seemingly endless morass of amorphous, ill-defined songs. I just don't think the themes are very well developed, or all that interesting. It's okay, but there's lots of stuff I like better.
Friendly, funky rockabilly and country boogie from... Finland? Looks like it. These guys are alright; depending on your sense of humor, you might get a kick out of their Northern accents, as they try to wrap themselves around an American country twang.
Phantom 409 "Mustang Ranch" (Jungle Records, 2003)
Phantom 409 "King Of The Gutter" (Jungle Records, 2004)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Lead Me On" (Burnside, 1994)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Roll Away The Stone" (Rykodisc, 1997)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Shine Eyed Mister Zen" (Rykodisc, 1999)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Sky Like A Broken Clock" (Rykodisc, 2001)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Beggar's Oil (EP)" (Rykodisc, 2002)
A lot of folks really dig this guy. I don't know why, but this record really bugs me. Or rather, this time around, he just leaves me cold. Sort of a poor man's Tom Wait's, I guess. Anyway, noteworthy contributors include world-jazzicana luminaries Bill Frisell and Scott Amendola, although, frankly, they seem more like hired guns on an overly-perfect, rather ornate and hopelessly mannered album.
Kelly Joe Phelps "Tap The Red Cane Whirlwind" (Rykodisc, 2005)
Kelly Joe Phelps "Tunesmith Retrofit" (Rounder, 2006)
Not alt.country, per se, but still such a great album it'd be a shame to pass it by. For many a month, this was one of my favorite albums, full of captivating tunes and odd, evocative lyrics. Phillips has long been something of and indie inbetweener, too rootsy for a mainstream breakthrough, and too mainstream to be fully embraced by the indie hipoisie... The production on this mainly-acoustic album -- steered, as ever, by her hubby, T-Bone Burnett -- is slick and mellow, but inviting. Orchestral pop pioneer Van Dyke Parks pitches in, as well as Tom Waits' erstwhile guitarist, Marc Ribot, who lends a recognizably Kurt Weill-ish twist to several tunes. This is Phillips' first album in five years, and while she seems to have missed the "Alice" style of femme-centric Top 40 programming, she certainly has my attention. This is an album packed with songs you could fall in love with. Mature, mysterious, enchanting rootsy modern music.
A nice, unassuming, low-key, acoustic-swing/stringband combo from Maine... Not mind-blowing, but totally likeable, with a nice brace of original songs written by singer/bassist Haakon A. Kallweit. Dan Hicks and Jimmie Rodgers would be proud.
An amiable set of western swing oldies and fine new originals, written by one of the founding members of the retro-jazz vocals ensemble, Manhattan Transfer. (No -- I'm not kidding!) Pistilli, who's nicknamed himself "The Hoboken Saddletramp," has a real feel for the music, which isn't too surprising -- he's moving from one style of retro swing to another -- and has written several swell new tunes (the title track in particular). There's a certain reserve to this album that makes it less than overpowering, but it's still pretty nice -- fans of The Hot Club Of Cowtown will wanna check this out as well.
Although these fellow traffick in the sort of white trash stereotypes that normally drive me buggy (songs about one drinkin,' druggin,' drawlin' foul-up after another...) I have to admit they have the instrumental ooompf to pull it off... mostly, that is. Singer Molly Conley has a major Lucinda Williams jones, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bit overplayed... She trades off and occasionally duets with the band's other singer-songwriter, Gary Roadarmel, and overall, this is pretty darn good, at least for the Bloodshot-ish "insurgent country" style. Worth checking out if you like them sassy, rockers-go-urban hick types.
John Prine - see artist discography
Alt.Country Albums - Letter "Q"
Hick Music Index