Sunday, June 17, 2007


Porter Wagoner

This album presents Porter Wagoner much the way Johnny Cash's series of American Recordings positioned him, as an avatar of cool for young urban hipsters. The main difference is, whereas Cash appeared head-to-toe in black, Wagoner favors flamboyant rhinestone suits.

There's even a similar stress on the darker side of his work, including a version of "Committed to Parkview," a song that Cash wrote about a Nashville mental hospital to which he and Wagoner were once committed. "There's a girl who cries above me, loud enough to wake the dead / They don't know what she has taken, that has scrambled up her head," Wagoner mourns, introducing one of the denizens of the institution to funereal strains of organ. Wagoner isn't pandering to a trendy new demographic here. From his homicidal 1967 hit "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" to the utterly unhinged "Rubber Room," he has long examined emotions pushed to the edge of reason. The Gothic trappings of this album include prison, death and a child born out of wedlock, yet true to form there's no shortage of devotional fare, either.

Produced by Nashville Renaissance man Marty Stuart, the record also harks back to the uncluttered, bluegrass-inflected arrangements of Wagoner's classic recordings. It's a sound rife with cantering two-steps and shuffles that, much like the work of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, has never sounded dated or gone out of style.

Wagoner's plainspoken delivery has never relied on daring or flash. He turns 80 this summer, and while his voice has weathered, his timing and storytelling instincts remain impeccable.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Committed to Parkview," "Satan's River"


Jason Aldean

Country singer Jason Aldean is the walking definition of a hat act, a term that has come to suggest a Stetson-wearing himbo with a fondness for warmed-over simulations of Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney. "Relentless," the follow-up to Aldean's platinum-selling debut, lifts a little from Column A and a little from Column B, mixing the homespun romanticism of McGraw with Chesney's fondness for pop melodies and rock guitars. The result is a country-rock (emphasis-on-country) disc that's both chowderheaded and charming, embarrassingly catchy and appallingly insincere.

"Relentless" appears to have been not so much constructed in a studio as programmed by some all-seeing Nashville computer (perhaps the same one responsible for Rascal Flatts) to spit out laboratory-tested Top 40 themes: Lead single "Johnny Cash," the closest thing here to a mainstream rock track, is a judiciously rowdy road anthem; "I Use What I Got" extols the benefits of down-home stick-to-it-iveness; and "Grown Woman" offers the requisite duet with an up-and-coming singer (Miranda Lambert, burnishing her reputation as a hat-act moll).

Aldean has a rich, craggy voice capable of conveying great sincerity under the most shameless of circumstances. Because "Relentless" is overfilled with pandering heartstring-pummelers, this comes in handy. The best of them, "Laughed Until We Cried," is a gauzy ode to family ("Sittin' cross-legged 'round the Christmas tree / Listenin' to granddad / We all knew it'd probably be his last") that benefits from his straight-faced delivery. It suggests that Aldean, who only sporadically writes his own material, might have a promising future as a redeemer of irretrievably saccharine ballads. Otherwise he's all hat and no cattle.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Grown Woman," "Laughed Until We Cried"

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