Americana Roundup

For fans of Americana and alt-country music, there’s no better time than the present to dig into some of the more solid material to come out in 2009.

Chris Knight’s Trailer Tapes continues where he left off with The Trailer Tapes, which reissued his raw, elemental initial recordings prior to signing with MCA in 1996. These recordings, far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, actually build on what we heard on the first series of demos, showing that Knight is one of America’s top country songwriters when he focuses on simple melody and lets the lyrics do the real talking. If you haven’t heard Knight before, check out The Trailer Tapes and Trailer II and then dig into his most recent studio effort, Enough Rope. You’ll soon agree he’s the only real heir to Steve Earle’s throne.

Robert Earl Keen is more of a contemporary to Earle, and he’s spent the last three decades writing great Texas alt-country. His latest effort, The Rose Hotel, features eleven new tracks which build on his reputation, including “Throwin’ Rocks,” which features a steady blues groove and vocals which sound like John Hiatt meets James McMurtry. The album’s also got some of his trademark oddities, including the likely-to-become-classic “10,000 Chinese Walk Into A Bar” and “Wireless In Heaven.”

The best of the bunch would have to be Mason Jennings’ latest offering, Blood of Man, which may well be his finest album to date — and that’s really saying something, when you’ve got a catalog as deep as his after only a decade. Think Springsteen’s Nebraska electrified if you fight for comparisons, but give the album a few listens on its own merits. With “City of Gold,” “Pittsburgh” and “The Field” opening the album, you’ll be hooked in ten minutes. “Pittsburgh” is one of Jennings’ strongest character sketches to date, and “The Field” is the most wrenching (and strongest, rhetorically) anti-war treatises I’ve heard come out of the Iraq war. The album plays through quickly and demands repeated listening, revealing layer upon layer the more deeply you listen. Not bad for an album of raw lo-fi electronic recordings. This album could sneak onto my top ten for 2009, which is saying something.

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