Staff Top 10
Top 10 Alt-Country Greats Not Recorded by Uncle Tupelo

you’re in Barnes & Noble, sipping a latte and scanning the Featured Music racks. Some of the names ring a bell. “Ryan Adams…does he wear a hat?” You’re sure you’ve heard of Wilco. You toss the empty latte and walk over to examine the cover, a silhouette of birds exploding off a white canvas. An employee with rolled-up sleeves and a thinning ponytail walks over and says, “Hey! Great band. Though you should really check these guys out…” He runs to an aisle and jogs back with something labeled “Uncle Tupelo – No Depression,” in his palm. He hands it to you. “They really started the whole movement. The guy from Wilco was the bass player.” You squint at titles like “Screen Door,” and “Life Worth Livin’.” Sounds a little back-porchy. You’re not sure what movement the guy’s even talking about, but it’s been so long since someone recommended a band to you, and you’re getting kind of sick of that unplugged Page & Plant reunion disc. In the event that you take it home and you like the idea of it, but water for something a bit more sophisticated, search for these lesser-known jewels:

10. Marah – Kids in Philly (2000)

Much preferable for smoothing your alt-country transition than the better-known A Ghost Is Boring, these Philly kids amp up Steve Earle’s songwriting with the crowded space of a great E Street Bruce tune. Two joyous keg riots start the proceedings, “Faraway You” and “Point Breeze,” which shoot off harmonicas like fireworks in the street to “do battle down the boulevard.”

Dave Bielanko’s scrunched-up Bruce affectation and the band’s propensity for do-do-do's and sha-la-la's sets off the “barbecue for everyone” that Van Morrison’s too artsy for. They shuffle ridiculous metaphors in “My Heart is the Bum on the Street” and forever cement their second encore with the marching “Round Eye Blues,” which makes excellently vertical use of castanets, accordion and a little “Be my little baby.” The best sidewalk-and-shore juke band since, what, Southside Johnny?

09. The Handsome Family – Last Days of Wonder (2006)

Here’s how the Handsome Family works: Rennie Sparks writes the lyrics and her husband Brett writes the music. Their songs are mostly sad, always slow, and often beautiful, with a sense of humor that comes through only when you realize the swirling lullaby you were nodding to features Rennie prominently describing the dead deer in her arms that she just shot, in the sweetest cadence she can lilt.

That’s not to absolve her equally sick partner, who sings, besides most of them, the one about eating horses and finding a human skull in his travails. If these two indeed lay on a plane unmarred by the fringes of sanity, I’ll take one of those straitjackets, too. Rennie likes to mention things like, “Books by millionaires / who found that Jesus Christ could guide them / into tripling their sales,” because she thinks it’s very funny to play slow, beautiful tunes with all the grace of Willie Nelson while exploiting her characters’ pathos for cheap laughs. And it is.

08. Amy Rigby – Little Fugitive (2005)

Sure she’s alt-country. She takes detours into backward-sound psych or three-chord wonderpunk now, but she still sneers about husbands who come in late “smelling like a perfume insert from a women’s magazine.” She doesn’t drawl too hard because her voice is permanently nervous from years of “Needy Men.” Even if she looks over her shoulder now and then to worry about “The Things You Leave Behind,” she’s made it through at least four of her five records so far as a single mother, so she’ll probably be okay.

On the jauntiest one, she asks how she can face the world, but on the friendliest, she can’t even face her new husband’s ex-wife. Like all wronged females who turn into great songwriters, she successfully deals with her life within a healthy modicum of fantasy (“Dancing With Joey Ramone”), truth (“So Now You Know”) and comparing herself to Rasputin.

07. Mekons – OOOH! (Out of Our Heads) (2002)

Leave it to a cabal of aging European anarchists to kick Bush’s ass after 9/11 while it was still so unfashionable even notable rabble-rousers like the Coup and Primal Scream bent to PR pressure (given, it would’ve been pretty tasteless to blow up the twin towers on an album cover or name a song “Bomb the Pentagon” but they’re still sellouts). Bruce Springsteen waited ‘til safe old 2004 to release his (very quiet) protest-folk record, and Neil Young trotted out his similar “massed rally” statement record in old-news 2006. But these guys announce from the get-go to no one in particular (but he probably has power) that the “seed of the devil lives on men,” and later insist, “History must still mean something to ya.”

The thing doesn’t exactly end on a positive note (“Rubbing and pounding / turned us to stone,”), but the widescreen production allows choruses like “Only You And Your Ghost Will Know,” just as massive as 1989’s “Empire of the Senseless,” to volcano out the speakers for once. Allowing for flute interjections and snake-charming guitar scribbles when Sally Timms isn’t leading a subverted church congregation on “Take His Name In Vain,” Jon Langford leads his merry band of cynics through the kind of traditional music no one all that traditional wants to make.

06. Buck 65 – Talkin’ Honky Blues (2003)

Want something truly alt? There’s no denying Richard Terfry’s twang appeal. “Call me country,” cooled the “road hog with an old dog singing soul songs” in 2005, and that was on a song bitching about having a too-big penis -- quite a ways from both hip-hop and country, the two genres Terfry works within and the two genres most obsessed with retaining airtight manliness at all costs. More than anyone else on this list does this invert the tropes of old fashioned country. He’s ashamed of his cheating. He doesn’t treat the communists and one-eyed cyclists he meets as freaks. He calls the openly gay “Big Fat Nigel” polite. He doesn’t even drink.

What he does do is intone gravelly yarns with rhyme patterns that interlock as fluidly as the teeth on a zipper. A master storyteller, he spares no detail (a shirt covered in cat hair, flies in the light fixture, a missing thumb) or turn of phrase (“living in a suitcase,” “make a wish and break it in two,”) Some wouldn’t call his surreal loop environments country at all, but even the squelchy ska of “Sore” and Kanye-styled chipmunk shuffle “Protest” signify like attractions on a road trip down the riverbed he wants you to understand so greatly.

05. The Naysayer – Pure Beauty EP (2003) / The Meat Purveyors – All Relationships Are Doomed To Fail (2002)

Why waste an entry on an EP? The cost-conscious consumer can combine the both of these for a knockout about the length of one album. They’re not that dissimilar. They’re both virtually unknown female-centric acts with tunes to game-set-match any Ryan Adams record. The Naysayer’s Anna Padgett and the Purveyors’ Jo Walston both sing very pretty, very humorous tunes, in not-so-pretty drywall voices. They each have a barroom classic: Padgett’s “My Liver Needs A Lawyer” and Walston’s twangier “Thinking About Drinking” (one of two things she does, the other being drinking).

Both groups embrace impossibly sincere-sounding novelties; the first surprise is that the Meat Purveyors’ “S.O.S.” and “Round and Round” are exorbitantly-fiddled ABBA and Ratt covers, the second that the Naysayer’s album title is a loving description of dick. And lest you not take these highballing goofballers seriously, each opens with something damn sincere-sounding: Walston’s plea for her sister to leave her abusive husband, Padgett’s plea for her widowed husband to stop dating other women before he rejoins her in heaven.

04. Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams (1988)

This is easily the most well-known and acclaimed record on this list, and for good reason. One thing you have to love about Lucinda is her almost-frightening need for perfection. I don’t mean her six year sabbaticals between albums and scrap-‘em-all-do-it-again sprees. I mean the “characters” in her songs. These people don’t rest…first one “just wanted to see you so bad” (she makes this clear about forty times) that she takes off in the middle of the night just for what sounds like one little hotel tryst. When she wants your ass gone, she not only replaces the locks, she gets a new phone number, trades in her car, and changes the name of the town, beating “Bug A Boo,” to Beyonce’s well-glossed lips by about a decade.

Only a year after Document patented R.E.M.’s arena-jangle, she steals Peter Buck’s whole Rickenbacker tremble for the demanding-yet-sensible “Passionate Kisses.” Her kisses would have to be some smackers to match the passion of her kiss-offs: the twangy heart-audit “Price to Pay” is one of the most gorgeous songs of 1980s, second only to the violin-swollen “Side of the Road,” which yokes more feeling out of dead-marriage emptiness than most Palme d’Or winners.

03. Wussy – Funeral Dress (2005)

Chuck Cleaver broke up the Ass Ponys just when they were starting to catch on to the pleasures of melody: 2000’s Some Stupid with a Flare Gun was as good a reason to keep a band going as any. Only now he’s in a better band than those guys ever were and with the help of a little female intuition understands more about melody and feeling than anyone ever expected him to. Part of the reason for this is because no one knows who he is. If there’s a copy of Funeral Dress in your local used CD shop, you never knew you were looking for it.

Virtually ignored outside of Ohio, Cleaver’s songwriting partnership with Lisa Walker (in her first band ever) has been one of the most fruitful of the decade. They nail the bared-teeth gnashing of an embittered separating couple (“Something from the ‘yours’ pile / shattered on the floor tile /and you went off like Frankenstein,”) sometimes to murderous heights (“You cut off your hair /despite all the warnings / and burned all my letters on a concrete block / I wasn’t there when they found you in the morning / I found a bullet while you were finding God”), but they make plenty of room for oddball asides like a “Humanbrained Horse,” that makes Walker jealous, and love songs (or Ass Ponys songs) just don’t come more eloquent than Cleaver’s “Yellow Cotton Dress,” which “is beautiful no doubt / But it becomes a motherfucker / when you fill it out.”

02. Clem Snide – End of Love (2005)

Eef Barzelay fucks with sensitivity like no Nashville singer before him. He trains his wounded howl on subjects like German hip-hop and Jews For Jesus, and makes even those sound poignant. Are we supposed to laugh or cry when he says Ricky used to beat Lucy “like a conga drum?” Are we supposed to identify when he ties it up by making “the chocolates move too fast / for us all,” sound elegiac? You might’ve noticed but that’s not a universal truth, just a strange wrinkle Barzelay likes to make when he puts his fingers in pop culture. Sometimes he really is universal: “If you get everything you hope for / then I will have to punish you,” is something anyone who’s ever crossed paths with religion has felt probably more than once.

He’s not being perverse; just another talented Jewish guy who’s managed to put his angst in a context that makes its ridiculousness enjoyable for many rather than frustrating for one. Said context includes beautiful studio textures worthy of Lambchop: tastefully employed horns, vibes, and children. And his big jolly anthem declares that “Maybe we should just release the doves / because no one will survive the end of love.” Okay, he’s perverse.

01. Old 97s – Too Far to Care (1997)

It’s understandable why history’s greatest fusion of country adage and rock fury is underrated. Rhett Miller’s smart, raucous quartet of punk-furrowed Texans is as uncomfortably in your face as Craig Finn’s spittle-talk, and without a snatch of irony to help you chase the simplified-but-unclichéd honesty. Miller’s just as apt to moan “what’s so fine about art,” in a song about “her on top and me on liquor” as he is to warn of the corruptions of Times Square in “Broadway.” Essentially, when he says he’s in love, you best believe he’s in love, l-u-v.

This sits well with neither indie-rockers, who need a little fog to help the direct go down, or radio programmers, who drew their own Mason-Dixon line in the sand once “everything but country,” became a demographic. His wide-eyed observations on city life crack as hay-baled as Alan Jackson sometimes (“a hotel room that costs as much as my apartment!” is appalling enough “to make a crooked man go straight.”), but at least he puts less passion in what he fears than what he celebrates (“The streets of where I’m from / are paved with hearts instead of gold,”).

And unlike most of the people on this list, he’s got the advantage and electricity of a fucking band to viscerally put his feelings across. “Melt Show” and “Four Leaf Clover” pack the thrash of Arctic Monkeys’ “Brianstorm” with ten times the songwriting, and these pros know when to repeat a hook or fill in a perfect drumroll (Phillip Peeples treats his snares like Phil Spector treats his women). To deny the irresistibly propulsive trident of “Big Brown Eyes,” “Timebomb,” and “Barrier Reef,” as defining anthems in the grand canon of electric guitar itself is to only admit you haven’t heard them yet.

By: Dan Weiss
Published on: 2007-08-17
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