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Poor Little Knitter on the Road

In the early Eighties, X ruled the Los Angeles punk scene and won the hearts of fans all along the West Coast who understood that there was something poetic inspiring all that fuzz and fire. No one, however, expected that it was country music. But that's what a young punk named Rob Miller heard coming across Berkeley's infamous KALX in 1985. He'd been grabbed by the Knitters, a side project of X's Exene Cervenka, John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake, along with Blaster Dave Alvin and Red Devils and Mike Ness bassist Johnny Ray Bartel. The Knitters knew that flipping off power structures was as much the territory of country musicians as it was of punk rockers, that a steel guitar could convey just as much pain and rebellion as a strafe of feedback. They released one album, Poor Little Critter on the Road, and one of their enduring legacies was that Rob Miller went on to help start Bloodshot Records, the label that's been putting out fuck-you country since 1993.

Now comes Poor Little Knitter on the Road, a track-for-track re-creation of The Knitters' album by various Bloodshot bands -- and it'll make you damn nostalgic for the underground glory of the Reagan years and help you get ready to rail against the fake-hick era of George W. Bush. There's a live, hissy quality to Kelly Hogan and the Rock*A*Teens' "Someone Like You," a slow lament to the benefits of brokenhearted self-deception and, thanks to the barroom chorus, to the comfort of comrades. The extra twang accentuates the minor-chord eeriness in the Blacks' version of "The New World," in which the lines "Honest to goodness, the bars weren't open this mornin'/They must have been votin' for the president or something" remain some of the best sociopolitical commentary ever. "The Call of the Wrecking Ball," Alvin and Doe's treatise on how much chicks love badasses, gets cocky treatment from Robbie Fulks, who's propelled by breakneck picking and a drummer playing a policeman's helmet. After a couple of ambling verses in their old-timey rendition of the Huddie Ledbetter classic "Rock Island Line," Jane Baxter Miller challenges her Devil in a Woodpile bandmates: "Come on boys, we ain't never gonna get to the hideout like this." They start speeding up, and by the last verse, they are playing as fast as any punk-rockers. But you only hear that if you know the context -- and that's also why 99 Tales' "Baby Out of Jail" passes for country here but could just as easily have been standard at Whiskey a Go Go circa 1982.

The Knitters turn in one of their own, the previously unreleased "Why Don't We Try Anymore." With double entendres from Doe and Cervenka about how seven years kills a marriage's luster, its swinging fiddles are perfectly at home on an album that has Whiskeytown doing the Knitters doing Merle Haggard. And Exene, for half the song, anyway, does a dead-on Carter sister -- until that creepy moment of dischord. But as everyone in this crowd knows, dischord makes the heart grow smarter. -- C.J. Janovy

Field Studies

When life explodes in your face, you can either package up your emotions and move on or bleed them all over your sleeve. While the latter can be ugly to watch, it can also make for spectacular art, especially when tempered with the right amount of sugar. The appeal of Olympia, Washington's Quasi has always been the juxtaposition of songwriter Sam Coomes's blunt, heart-bleeding lyrics and the sweetest of his carnival pop melodies. Like an existential organ-grinder, Coomes invites us to hum and dance around our greatest fears: that love is a temporary illusion, that our versions of reality are self-centered delusional constructs and that, basically, nothing really matters. Field Studies is full of this fun stuff, like the lyric "A cardboard world with painted skies/Because we all must agree to believe in the lies" from "The Golden Egg." While it would be easy to write Coomes off as a cynical grump, his impeccable pop sense makes the whole thing immensely palatable. Throw into this mix Coomes's ex-wife, Janet Weiss (a member of Sleater-Kinney), on drums, and you have some wonderful drama -- a bitter, indie-rock Fleetwood Mac.

Stretching beyond the cartoonish organ-and-drums approach of the band's three prior recordings, Coomes throws in some much-needed instrumentation this go-around, including full string arrangements, vibraphones, and even some bass guitar provided by fellow Northwestern moper Elliott Smith. It makes for an irresistible collection, whether Coomes is relaying a tale about a visit from Mr. Death on "The Skeleton" or swaying back and forth singing "I dream of you, but don't know what to do/Me and my head, alone in my bed" on "Me & My Head." Amusingly enough, the only Weiss-penned song, "Two by Two," steals the show, as did her sole number on 1998's Featuring "Birds." Over a slow ascending scale, she solemnly croons, "You've left at last/I knew you could/Leaving nothing to remember you by/Except how to be happy/And how not to care anymore." Touching and somber, it softly cuts to the painful core, only to be followed by the aptly titled "It Don't Mean Nothing," a cacophonous rocker with Coomes howling over and over, "It don't mean nothing to" Quasi's strengths lie within these broad musical and emotional dynamics, and yet the band's relatively narrow range of instrumentation could possibly lead to stagnation in future endeavors if they aren't careful. For now, though, listeners should be content to jump giddily around the house singing lines like "Oh, to be free -- to free myself from me" (from "Birds"). Coomes might be weary and jaded -- but he's grinning like a motherfucker from gloomy start to finish. -- Kevin Crouse

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