The Reals feature Matt and Cheyenne Kowal, a brother/sister-fronted roots-and-country act that, along with other family-tied groups like the Roches or Fiery Furnaces, possesses the kind of telepathic harmony normally bequeathed upon blood kin. Specializing in nakedly honest autobiographical songs, the pair drops a heavyhearted anchor left of Americana -- somewhere between an encroaching wasteland and the last frontier of honest diner food. Quietly chewing the scenery, a cast of bone-weary characters spends time declaring love to be "fairly natural, like Northern Lights or a tornado" ("Fairly Natural") -- that is, when they're not sharing precious moments about their sleep numbers ("Toledo"). Current and rustic in equal measure, the disc is a clever, heartfelt and skillfully delivered batch of dry-gulch tunes and tumbleweeds. There's even a jazzy number that practically begs to bring chastity belts back into vogue ("Pretty Foot").
Majestic, the followup to the group's debut effort, Partly Cloudy, might favor the quieter side of the road, the meditative sunset and the inoffensive roadhouse ballad, but mandolins, harps and acoustic guitars always make for warm bedfellows, hangover or not. Imagine Joe Cocker fronting a bluegrass band. Or Loudon Wainwright ignoring train wrecks to sing about mama cows and wind ("Goes").
Finally, the disc's shortest cut remains its timeliest. "W" is a dashed-off bit of political indigestion that honors Dave Eggers while scolding the president: "A heartbreaking work of swaggering genius/Good old Uncle Sam/And I follow you, Pueblo to Waterloo/Just to draw a line in the sand/ Double standards and lies/Fuckups and follies/Carried us safe thus far/So there's no need to wonder/Let's roll out the thunder/Let's rock stars and bars." It ain't Neil Young, but in an election year, who's counting? (www.thereals.net) -- John La Briola
What This Record Needs...Is More Cowbell
(Jett Black Music)
The local boys in Jett Black come out kickin' right from the drop. The lead cut, "Over You," peels off the yellow line like a souped-up Chevy, establishing a retro vibe that mates the rock with the billy. With thumping upright bass, staccato garbage-lid stick work, vintage ax and blaring sax, Black is proof positive that the '50s are alive and well. Drawing from influences like the Stray Cats, Johnny Cash and Jack Daniels, tracks such as "Roadburn," "No Man's Land," and "Bring Back My Cadillac" will get the Vitalis movin' through your hair and put the chain back on your wallet. Props to illustrator Chris Lamy for his airbrush-inspired cover art -- all aces, flames, diamonds, hollow body and fishnet. "Arizona" and Saying Goodbye" mark a moody (in a good way) alterna switch, with a sound vaguely reminiscent of the Replacements. But mostly think unrequited blue-jean love, faded Naugahyde dreams and devil-may-care swagger held together by actual talent. (www.jettblack.net) -- Nick Hutchinson