The Aluminum Group, Patricia Barber, Schneider TM, The Souvenirs

Moist might seem dry at first, but as the title implies, give it a squeeze and the juice will start to flow. -- Michael Roberts

The Souvenirs
King of Heartache
(Will Records)

There's a reason for the endless appeal of the country weeper. The desperate strains of a pedal steel guitar, the restraint of a skilled band and an achy voice that speaks in simple terms to your pain -- they all combine to free the saltwater and the soul. Sure, it's just for a few minutes, but that's a lot of relief to a heart that breaks full-time. The Souvenirs fully understand this concept and play the crying game as though they owned stock in Kleenex.

The SouvenirsKing of Heartache
The Souvenirs
King of Heartache

Thankfully, they also understand the value of rockin' and the fact that without fresh touches, alt country ain't alternative. This remarkable debut clearly separates these young men from the good ol' boys. Though the foundation for the Seattle five-piece's sound is Bakersfield-style country, the Souvenirs juice it up with brainy pop touches and wagon-rocking energy. The result is a fresh sound that blends Dwight Yoakam's genius and Roy Orbison's wistfulness with the darker side of Chris Isaak. It's made especially appealing by the manly but sensitive voice of singer Lucky Lawrence and his whip-smart country gentlemen mates. They may smile pretty in their cowboy finery, but like true gunslingers, they're willing to forsake politeness for lethal firepower when the job requires it.

"One Less Fool [267K aiff]" starts things off nicely, a sunny honky-tonker marked by Lawrence's optimistic tenor and string-tie fills by lead guitarist Mo. The title track shifts a few degrees: Above a snappy snare and desert-breeze steel guitar, Lawrence cries in the wind to a long-gone love as the tune's sticky-sweet chorus disappears in the brain. It's crystalline country-and-Western, Buck Owens wrapped in shimmering satin. But the band is equally adept at cattle-punching. "1000 Miles Away" is a brooding after-dark highway anthem; "Cherry Lips [237K aiff]" is cranked-up Jerry Lee Lewis rollick perfect for the rock club and roadhouse. Like any respectable twangster act, the band also offers a couple of mid-tempo shufflers ("Shades of Blue," "Sentimental") with just enough clever wordplay to keep the mind busy while the boot scoots.

Oh, but when the Souvenirs go for the weak spot, they nail it. "So Tired of Missing You [281K aiff]" is the sort of dramatic stroller that makes Dwight the Man, and the Souvenirs play it as tightly and cinched-down as Yoakam's britches. As the singer laments one more lonely night among foolish friends, his mates deliver a lanky shuffle that slowly drips blood. "Hideaway" really opens up the tear ducts, as Lawrence's weary vocals and D.J. Pawlak's sobbing steel make sure your heart falls to pieces. When he sings "Strong are the drinks that I'm drinking up on this bar stool," it doesn't sound like cliche, but rather like a man crumbling. "Anna Marie" eases the hurt with accordion and a Tex-Mex snap, "Your Old Used to Be" lopes with bittersweet Ray Price sparkle, and "I Will Be With You" returns to wide-open spaces and Western wonder.

So much of today's y'allternative music is recast old gold, put forth by newcomers whose hearts seem to be in the wrong place. That's not the case with the Souvenirs. Their uncompromising take on country makes King of Heartache worth taking home to treasure. -- Marty Jones

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