With the Nashville establishment in a creative funk of epic proportions (for proof, check out Shania Twain), independent labels are stepping into the void. Slow River, a tiny company out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, is among the cheekier players in this movement--an imprint that releases recordings capable of stretching, rather than shrinking, the parameters of the genre. The various Buckets, known by pseudonyms such as Wanda Taters, Slim Volume and Kid Coyote, manage this trick quite naturally, in part because they couldn't have less in common with members of the C&W aristocracy: They've played with the Breeders, John Wesley Harding and the SF Seals, not Alabama. Still, The Buckets isn't a snotty throwaway offered up by disaffected alt-rockers with too much free time on their hands. The album is a shaggy but heartfelt curio featuring "I'm Drunk" ("I would like to put this bottle/Into someone else's hands/But the noise inside my head/Pounds like Salvation Army bands") and fourteen other songs in which humor and pathos are equally important ingredients. The bandmembers' pedigrees aside, The Buckets seems more genuine than 90 percent of the proto-Vegas twang being proffered by the post-Garth generation. As for Chesterman, he's another outsider (a veteran of the defunct pop-punk combo Scruffy the Cat) who loves country music but doesn't feel shackled by its traditions. The seventeen ditties on Studebakersfield move from style to style in a manner that's sure to strike some as abrupt, but his unadorned voice, his way with a hook and compositions such as "Mister Blue," "Ballad of the Holiday Ramblers" and "Lonesome Cowboy's Lament" mark him as just the type of bright, adventurous songwriter that country music needs now more than ever. People like Chesterman are out there, folks. You've just got to dig to find them.--Michael Roberts
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Dreamtime Planet--The Second Barrumundi Sampler
(Logic Records/Antler Subway Music)
This evocatively named collection of spacey rhythms and quietly dispersed electronic burbles is theoretically designed to do wallpaper duty in many different environments. But be warned that it will work better in some contexts than in others. A new-age store? Nah. Melt's "Freezone" would rattle the doors on all those little glass pyramids. A club? Better idea, because the beats would fit in; also, Karma De La Luna's nice "Travel Without Moving" would be as odd a party slogan as Morris Day's "The Oak Tree." But night-lifers would be left with far too much time to chat during the moments when the synthesized textures wash around the breaks. A subliminal-suggestion video? Perhaps. After all, the relaxed voice-overs on Transformer's "2 Virtual Cocoon" suggest a Jamaican golf announcer. However, the tunes are too distracting--especially Kelc's "Open," which deserves to do lead-credit duty in some urban gangster flick. Home? Sure. That's definitely a place in need of mellowing out, no?--John Young
People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story
In terms of his place in soul-music history, Mayfield has gotten some bad breaks--and I'm not referring to the one in his neck that paralyzed him a few years back. First with the Impressions, a substantial and significant vocal group, and later on his own, Mayfield made music that was trenchant, forward-looking and unique; he strode down many of the same paths as did Marvin Gaye, albeit with considerably less chart success. (The exception to this rule was his soundtrack to the 1972 blaxploitation flick Superfly, an oft-overlooked landmark of the burgeoning funk-rock movement.) A listen to People Get Ready, an estimable three-CD boxed set dedicated to Mayfield's work, will hip you to both his commercial liabilities and his greatest achievements. Instead of presenting his compositions in sleek, linear packages, Mayfield created complex, multidimensional grooves built from horns, strings and soulful background singing that swirled around his singular voice and memorable guitar figures like moths around a streetlight. As a result, some of his tunes tend to meander, but they do so in such a provocative and elaborate manner that they fascinate in spite of themselves; others, like the 1973 should've-been-a-smash "Future Shock," are as propulsive as they are wise. These discs only hint at the breadth and depth of Mayfield's oeuvre--a tribute to his longevity. But if their arrival facilitates the reissue of other Mayfield recordings, People Get Ready will have accomplished a worthy goal.--Roberts