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K.T. Oslin

Live Close By, Visit Often (BNA/BMG)

Oslin has been around country music long enough to know that the C&W establishment doesn't often look kindly upon performers who try something different. But she didn't let that stop her from making Live Close By, Visit Often, a disc that busts through boundaries by refusing to acknowledge that they even exist.

In this regard, Oslin chose the perfect producer: Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks, is at the helm here, and as he does on his group's recordings, he uses whatever styles suit the material. The title track, for instance, is flat-out R&B of the sort Bonnie Raitt used to do, with a stinging guitar solo, punchy horns, the sensual purr of a B-3 organ and a vocal by Oslin that's womanly in the best ways imaginable. She proves even more versatile later on, sashaying before an insinuating samba backdrop on "Somebody's Leavin' Somebody," giving the lyrics to the jazzy "Mean to Me" a touch of sass and gently caressing the Cole Porter chestnut "What Is This Thing Called Love?"

Not all of Malo's experiments work: "Come On-A My House," which is slathered in an unexpectedly electro-heavy production, takes Oslin out of her comfort zone. But more often than not, she takes full advantage of the opportunity to wiggle free from the Nashville straitjacket -- nowhere to better effect than on "Neva Sawyer." A story-song in the grand tradition, this tale of "a high-wire walker" and "the world's strongest man" who was "never quite the same" after tangling with "bad, bad Neva," is as juicy as a ripe peach, and it's a joy to hear Oslin bite into it.

Live Close By, Visit Often confounds expectations -- and when was the last time anyone said that about a major-label country album?

 
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