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Neko Case

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

(Anti)

A woman I know has been shooting publicity pictures for Neko Case since her 1997 debut, The Virginian (Bloodshot). "I just listened to the new one and I felt so bad for Neko," my friend said. "She's getting so distant. It's like she's touring all the time so she doesn't have any friends anymore."

The lyrics on March's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, it's true, stray from the personal content on her earlier releases. But whether or not Case is wanting for companionship these days, the dozen tracks assembled here on her first full-length studio recording since 2002's Blacklisted speak to her continuing evolution as a tale-spinner and song crafter of the highest caliber. Here, she lends her sonic signature of lush, echoic minor-key sound to haunting scraps of poetry that are as delicate as they are disturbing. Songs like the opener, "Margaret vs. Pauline," and the title track are creepy Southern gothic weepers with storylines that are hard to catch, but cling like nightmares.

The unfinished images -- a horrible accident, something cherished lost -- leave a lasting and unsettling feeling that something awful has happened in the lines that were unsung. Her take on the traditional "John Saw That Number," which features the piano and organ work of alt-country pioneer Garth Hudson of The Band -- is a clangy, almost straightforward country-gospel romp, but for her flourishes of hollow, crackly production and holding the last note in a phrase a little too long, a little too hopefully. Similarly, the incantatory and highly formal "A Widow's Toast" sounds like an Appalachian hymn Dolly Parton could have recorded, except for those sly subtleties that keep the song almost aware of itself. Besides Hudson, Case is joined by old friends like Calexico, who add their hypnotic, spaghetti-Western sound to multiple tracks, and new pals like Dexter Romweber, who reins in the mad-scientist vibe admirably on the wistful "That Teenage Feeling."

All in all, Fox Confessor is an incredibly complex and mature recording from alt-country's redheaded melancholy baby, hopefully heralding her evolution from sweetheart of a subgenre into a musical force. -- Fensterstock

Jolie Holland

Springtime Can Kill You

(Anti)

Sharing a label with twisted murder balladeers like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Neko Case -- who call the darker places in rural Americana home -- is a challenging task for a new face also looking to make her way down those haunted back roads. Luckily, Jolie Holland's frailty of affect, a cross between the sunshiny, marble-mouthed warmth of Lucinda Williams and the cartoonish squeak of a 1920s parlor-ditty singer, is backed by the power and surety of the deeply, deeply disturbed.

Holland's second full-length album (a follow-up to 2004's critically hailed Escondida) is startlingly complete and beautifully spare, with an under-produced cohesion that echoes Willie Nelson's lo-fi masterpiece Red Headed Stranger. The total effect is as if one of Case's, Cave's or Waits' unfortunate heroines made her own album, recorded from whatever unmarked grave or well her bones had landed in. The title track, to excellent effect, uses one of Waits' favorite techniques -- skewing the mix of totally straight-faced instrumental tracks, like the oompah of a baritone sax and the tinkle of saloon piano to create a weird sense of unease. The sloppy-drunk brass on "You're Not Satisfied," bleating just behind the beat, has the same effect. "Stubborn Beast," the most country (and we're talking Kitty Wells country) track on the album, has Holland in her fullest voice, with the dependably melancholy twang of pedal steel howling in the distance.

Springtime's song cycle of love, madness and moonshine makes gentle and masterful use of traditional blues, folk and country to create an album full of meandering, warm melodies that all sound like the mournful coda to a story that didn't turn out right, or the last dance, at sunset, on the final day of summer. -- Fensterstock

Drive-By Truckers

A Blessing and a Curse

(New West)

The Drive-By Truckers' seventh release is the first to deviate from their trademark story-driven formula and lyrical fire against the South, their two most celebrated qualities.

But regardless of the change, it digs just as deep in the mud as its predecessors. In Blessing, the band's unclassifiable, conceptual sweat-and-grit rock comes full circle to create a stomping ground on which new ideas take form. Old fans will detect the references to their not-so-sweet home Alabama underneath farther-reaching themes about small-time screw-ups, people left behind to mourn the dead, and the necessary pain of love.

The second track, Mike Cooley's "Gravity's Gone," takes a dip in the country grease while tweaking Hollywood's "cocaine rich." "Easy on Yourself" loses the '70s rock accent for a second, but it's right back in "Aftermath USA," a crystal-meth nightmare. While this song offers insight, Patterson Hood's singing is just a little too upbeat for the weighted lyrics, making a tragedy come off like an ode to hard partying.

Overall, each song progresses in intensity and meaning, building support for the final message, "It's going to be a world of hurt." It ends posing the idea that this album's a lot more complex than it seems, and the Truckers' new direction is no wrong turn. -- Richardson

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