"Live From the Memory Hotel"
The first song that stands out on "Sugarbird," the new CD by the alt-country group June Star, is "Baltimore," a working band's blues. Lead vocalist and songwriter Andrew Grimm gets the tone just right, delivering the lyrics with a mixture of despair and determination: "Nobody came, but my band still played / We just closed our eyes and made believe . . . we got two channels of 700 watts / We're gonna give it all we got, tonight."
Sparsely arranged and often emotionally bleak, "Sugarbird" isn't exactly bursting with songs that are likely to draw a big crowd -- in Baltimore, the band's home base, or anywhere else. But Grimm and his compatriots have nevertheless carved out an interesting niche for themselves, a little left of the alt-country center and not far from the kind of thinking man's folk associated with the late Townes Van Zandt. Granted, Grimm's warble takes some getting used to; there are times when he doesn't sing so much as drone. But it's the sort of voice that eventually gets under your skin if you listen long enough, and that's even more true of the best songs on "Sugarbird," including the haunting, Van Zandt-like ballad "Home" and the wry, rhythmically loping lament "Belly."
Mark McKay's "Live From the Memory Hotel," on the other hand, contains a surefire crowd pleaser that features June Star. It's a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" that sounds as if were inspired by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But more typical of "Memory Hotel," nearly all of which was recorded at Jammin' Java in Vienna, are the acoustic tracks, especially the bittersweet lament "Nashville" and the soulful "Long Lost Louise." Shaded by Kris Delmhorst's harmonies and fiddle, both songs reveal McKay's considerable talent in quiet and affecting settings.
Timothy Bracken, a big asset on June Star's "Sugarbird," occasionally veers toward slightly askew British pop on his solo disc, "Disrepair." The multi-instrumentalist has a knack for writing songs that sound engagingly tuneful and emotionally complicated within the same verse, as "What It's Like to Be Blind" demonstrates, and even when he's ranting on "Stolen Car," his pop smarts shine through.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Thursday at Iota; June Star also appears Saturday at Iota with James McMurtry. * To hear a free Sound Bite from June Star, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8105; to hear Mark McKay, press 8106; to hear Timothy Bracken, press 8107. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)