Saturday, 6 March 2004

Album Review: What It Sounds Like Volume 1

Alternative Country (or as it has become known) is a tough sound to define. Ever since No Depression was first published in 1995, the magazine has sought to provide examples of, but even they have been quick to point out that they don't quite know what it is (hence the disclaimer, 'whatever that is' appearing on every cover). The definition is elusive because, as with all art, the music pays no mind to strictures or bounds. And yet, somewhere, somehow there is a commonality, a harmonizing chord struck between the cracks of the styles and genres that blend together amid the artists portrayed in their pages. Ultimately though, the best way to understand any music, is to hear it. And here is a collection of thirteen moving and inspired songs that seem to fit together under the banner (whatever that is).

Seattle may seem like an odd place for a country compilation to begin, but then Johnny Cash was no ordinary country performer and Time Of The Preacher is no ordinary country track. Cash, during one of his final tours decided to stop off at a local studio and record this Willie Nelson track. Joining him are Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) on guitar, Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) on bass and Sean Kinney (Alice In Chains) on drums. Concluding this ephemeral super-group was John Carter Cash on twelve-string. As expected, the result is staggering; as Cash delivers one of his most powerful vocal performances.

Ryan Adams' former alma mater, Whiskeytown, make an appearance. Despite being surrounded by more worldly-wise artists on every track, it is the twenty-year-old Adams who sums up the feelings behind more than anyone else, as he admits, "So I started this damn country band / cause punk rock was too hard to sing." Faithless Street is lifted from Whiskeytown's 1995 album of the same name and is a potent reminder that while Adams' rock leanings have become more evident, his roots can be found in country music. Adams isn't the only artist on this collection who abandoned his punk lineage to forge a career in country music. No Depression's Artist of the Decade, Alejandro Escovedo's (formerly a member of 70s punk band The Nuns) finest moment, the startling Five Hearts Breaking is also featured.

The Carter Family's No Depression In Heaven demands inclusion, for it's the track that gave 'No Depression' magazine its name. The song is often credited to A.P. Carter, though research has shown that the true author was James D. Vaughn. This song has often been covered (most notably by New Lost City Ramblers and Uncle Tupelo), but it is the Carter Family's adaptation that remains the definitive version.

Other highlights include the beautiful, Is Heaven Good Enough For You by Alison Moorer, Buddy Miller's caustic, Does My Ring Burn Your Finger? and Hayseed's interpretation of the age-old standard, Farther Alon. Farther Along is proof, once again, that Emmylou Harris is the most perfect harmonising partner in country music history, perfectly complementing Christopher Wyant's baritone vocal.

This disc is bright and humorous yet gloomy and poignant. No Depression doesn't assist in establishing a definition for What it does do though, is serve as an excellent starting point for those to start their journey into the realms into the more credible end of country music. Frankly, this compilation is an excellent opportunity for any music fan to buy a baker's dozen of tremendous, disparate yet comparable songs in one fell swoop.

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