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Various Artists
Return of the grievous angel --
a tribute to Gram Parsons

(Almo Sounds)

Before his death of an overdose in 1973 (he was 26), Gram Parsons worked with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and put out a couple of moderately interesting solo albums that supposedly influenced American music for generations to come. He's credited with inventing the country-rock genre, but folks who missed the actual phenomenon are left only with the testimony of musicians and critics. (There's the common refrain, for example, that without Parsons there'd have been no Eagles -- a dubious accolade in retrospect, since the Eagles' legacy is turning out to be mainly sentimental, for folks whose first love affairs were intensified by "Peaceful, Easy Feelin'" or "Lyin' Eyes.")

In fact, Parsons's greatest accomplishment was to give a back-up singing job to Emmylou Harris, who has gone on to a 25-year career as the sweetheart of America's rodeo. Harris has paid him back by producing a tribute album that finally explains the Parsons mystique.

And it's not just because Lucinda Williams renders a beautiful, crystalline version of the dusty title track. Instead, it's because the song puts her career in a whole new perspective when she sings about how she's been down twenty thousand roads that all lead "straight back home to you" -- and it's suddenly obvious who that "you" might really be. It's because on the two-steppin' "High Fashion Queen," former Byrd/Burrito Chris Hillman teams up with Steve Earle -- as much of a maverick as Parsons ever was, except that Earle's put out his best music since cleaning up, something Parsons never had a chance to do. It's because Sheryl Crow refuses to change the genders in "Juanita," so when she sings about a seventeen-year-old girl who's "brought back the life that I once threw away" (with Emmylou harmonizing), the song acquires a new subversiveness -- and thirty years later, it takes the suggestion of lesbianism to make Parsons's music as subversive as it originally was for just mixing country and rock.

Incredibly, this is a disc on which Evan Dando manages to sound innocuously like country stalwart Don Williams; a piano-tinkling Elvis Costello doesn't do nearly as much damage as he could have with "Sleepless Nights"; Beck sings in a perfectly sincere -- and appropriate -- trembly twang on "Sin City" (accompanied only by acoustic guitars, bass, fiddle, pedal steel and piano); and "Ooh Las Vegas" inspires the Cowboy Junkies to rock.

It's a disc on which, when Emmylou Harris sings a melancholy duet with Chrissie Hynde on the opening "She," the two women's voices -- in other contexts as different as a steel guitar and a synthesizer -- are at moments indistinguishable. That's hard to imagine, just like it's hard to imagine that Parsons really could have had the profound influence on American music that all the critics say he did. Here the musicians let their performances do the talking, and for once, it all makes sense. -- C.J. Janovy

The Road Kings
The Road Kings

At first glance, the Road Kings' black leather, sideburns, stand-up bass and fixation with vintage cars makes them seem like your basic Fifties-friendly act. But a listen to this self-titled debut disc makes it clear that the Texas trio (who will perform Friday, September 3, at the 15th Street Tavern) is much more than that. At their worst, the Kings make up an inspired outfit that successfully combines rockabilly, Lone Star blues and metallic rock into a thoroughly entertaining whole. At its best, the band stirs up the most bad-assed, dark and dirty roots raunch around.

The secret to the band's success lies in triple-threat singer/guitarist/songwriter Jesse Dayton. For his singing alone, Dayton gets the nod for this year's where-in-hell-did-this guy-come-from award. A husky crooner who oozes personality with every stylistic stretch, Dayton leaps from weary bluesman to hepcat yelper and blue-metal mauler, somehow combining the better parts of Elvis, Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Howlin' Wolf. Yeah, it's a monster that sounds scary, but it works -- thanks to Dayton's cheekiness and vocal winks. The cocky workmanship of drummer Richie Vasquez and slap bassist Jason Burns (not to mention the speakers-breathing-on-your-neck production of James Saez) make it clear that these boys are serious.

The disc's opener, "Hurdy Gurdy Monkey Shine," sets the tone. A hillbilly stomper, it features Dayton's sassy pomaded vocals and stinging crystal-meth country licks. "Gunslinger Blues" is a clear standout, a back-porch acoustic blues that explodes into a loping three-chord roar, pushing a tale of cozy Texas life in which the "devil's on the front porch knocking at the screen door" and "Daddy shoves a gun in his face." The singer's family sends Satan on his way to a jaw-dropping Dayton slide solo that cools off only to return to the porch and a dobro. In the spaghetti-Western-themed "Boystown," Dayton hits the mark on another solo that might lead lesser players to consider giving up the guitar for good. The blues-rock vibe returns on the punchy "Up One Side (Down the Other)," though "Are You Gonna Get Real?" takes things a shade too far: It's Seventies-cum-Nineties funk bordering on Lenny Kravitz cliche and one of the few times the band veers off the pavement.

The Kings must have some self-imposed quota for both style-straddling and unexpected surprises. They visit the Bo Diddleyed voodoo camp in "Casting My Spell" and the Reverend Horton Heat in "Supercop" and "HotWired"; "Holdin' On Again" is a delicious slab of Pete Townshend power chords and rumba, of all things, a retro-metallic lovers' lament torched midway by more Dayton string magic. "Deep Inside" is a highlight, a sin-and-betrayal huncher with one-chord verses, jackknife bridges and Dayton's dastardly vocals. The Road Kings score more often than the Broncos' offense; that they do so in such a fresh fashion is as impressive as the royal appeal of this head-spinning, genre-blending disc. -- Marty Jones

Paul Westerberg
Suicaine Gratifaction

You can't stay eighteen and drunk forever. To his credit, former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg appears to have accepted this fact far more readily than his fans, most of whom can be characterized as one-time college-radio-DJ types who still think Tool is something you use in the garden. But while Westerberg's efforts to battle his personal demons over the past decade are laudable, this disc represents the nadir of the steady decline his music has exhibited during that span. Among the hardest cuts to stomach here is "Self-Defense [300K aiff]," on which Westerberg tries unsuccessfully to reinvent himself as a lounge-friendly balladeer. Conversely, "Best Thing That Never Happened," "Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeve," and "It's a Wonderful Lie" indulge the songwriter's penchant for word play so tired it needs Geritol. Fortunately, " Fugitive Kind [262K aiff]" and the jaunty " Whatever Makes You Happy [248K aiff]," through their reliance on spunky temps and lyrics that don't try too hard to make grand statements, strike brighter notes. But even these tunes are flat reminders of the semi-coherent passion that was once Westerberg's trademark. Blame it on age, ennui or the Winona Ryder nookie the singer was apparently enjoying around the time of last year's Oscars -- but his muse has disappeared like the contents of an open keg at a frat party. -- John Jesitus

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