BLUES AT MIDNIGHT

Bobby "Blue" Bland

R&B great Bobby "Blue" Bland, now 73, hasn't seen a career spike since he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than a decade ago. The extensive press coverage accorded Solomon Burke, Etta James and other members of the senior soul circuit in recent years has eluded Bland, and yet the singer continues to record albums that are true to his Southern roots, laced with heartaches, headaches and remorse.

Admittedly, his voice lacks the power and reach it once had. Back in the '50s and '60s, when he recorded for Duke and other labels, Bland's delivery was far more robust and dynamic. But one listen to this new CD should be enough to convince anyone that the Tennessee native is still a terrific blues balladeer, capable of conveying emotional distress in ways that easily compensate for his diminished vocal range.

Nearly all the songs on "Midnight" are a cut above average, and the best of them seem tailor-made for Bland's smoky baritone and his low-key brand of storytelling. Both "I Caught the Blues From Someone Else" and "Where Do I Go From Here," for example, are pitch-perfect portraits. The former is about a man who can't escape his haunted past no matter how hard he tries, while the latter concerns someone who's emotionally cornered and facing a bleak future. With the help of a seasoned cast of blues musicians -- and relying on a series of old-school horns-and-organ arrangements -- Bland quickly makes these tales, and others, sound firsthand.

One thing wears thin fast, though. Bland has grown increasingly fond of punctuating his songs with a peculiar trademark. He likes to take in a gulp of air through his nose until his soft palate vibrates enough to simulate a bad case of apnea. These odd snorts may be real crowd-pleasers in concert, but they come across as just plain silly when Bland repeatedly resorts to them on "Midnight." Fortunately, he's aware that some songs, including the album's jazz-tinged arrangement of "What a Wonderful World," should be delivered wheeze-free.

-- Mike Joyce

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)HOLOPAW

HolopawWhen Gram Parsons set out on his 1960s odyssey to bridge the gap between country and rock-and-roll, the experiment seemed doomed from the start. For today's music fans -- long since used to improbable combinations like folk-metal and disco-punk -- it's hard even to imagine how monstrously wrong the merger appeared at the time. The best contemporary approximation of Parsons's mission would probably be a band hellbent on mixing something like arty electronica with old-school country.

Welcome to Holopaw. Led by Ugly Casanova second-singer John Orth, the Gainesville, Fla., group is pioneering electronic roots music -- a darkly gentle sort of country where the dominant steel string holler comes dappled with hissy beats and oscillating waves of computer-built samples.

A tight rein on those technological flourishes helps elevate the band's debut beyond novelty record. As on much of the CD, the throbbing beats on "Short-Wave-Hum (Stutter)" and the synth bleeps on "Cinders" surface only briefly before receding into inconspicuousness. That tentative touch with electronics is echoed on the more traditional instruments as well. Holopaw's version of Southern music is a bare and spacious thing, giving Orth's plaintive voice and image-soaked lyrics room to soar.

Unfortunately, the less-is-more approach doesn't always add up to memorable songs, and most of the record falls short of tingly highlights like "Hula-La" and "Mammoth Cave." When the mutant magic works, though, Holopaw is unforgettable: a beautiful transmission from an unlikely musical frontier.

-- Chris Baty

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)