Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts

Here's more proof that C&W authenticity doesn't mean jack anymore. Kelly Hogan, whose past gigs have included stints with the Jody Grind and the Rock*a*Teens (not to mention a day job doing publicity for the very label that released this disc), is no one's idea of a homegrown country chanteuse. Likewise, the members of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a pickup project created by Jon Langford (a founder of the Mekons -- and a native of England), can't exactly trace their lineage to Bob Wills despite having produced a tribute album in his honor last year. Yet Underdog generates more country-style pleasure than a truckload of Faith Hill CDs.

The tunes here hail from a wide variety of sources -- some from Hogan, Langford and their associates; others from venerated country or rock tunesmiths (among the covers on hand are "[It's a Mighty Thin Line] Between Love and Hate," co-written by Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson's potent "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" and the Band chestnut "Whispering Pines"); and one, "Papa Was a Rodeo," from Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt, who's not exactly renowned as a Nashville maven. Yet what makes the selections hang together is a musical attitude that mingles respect for tradition with a refusal to be hamstrung by it. This is no quasi-parody by outsiders who get a charge out of playing the hayseed, as the deeply sentimental rendering of Langford's "Mystery" ably demonstrates. And although the horn section that decorates "I Don't Believe in You" has more in common with Memphis soul than Memphis country, it's no less heartfelt for having an unconventional ancestry.

A few ditties threaten to list into jokiness, most notably "Crackers Rule," complete with what's described as a "George C. Scott IS Patton" trumpet solo by Dave Max Crawford. But Hogan is wink-free throughout, delivering her lines with a smoky gravity that's both pure and reassuring. Another Bloodshot gem, Beneath the Country Underdog makes straying from the beaten path seem like the only way to go.


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