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Rustic Never Sleeps

Drive-By Truckers
Southern Rock Opera (SDR)

Several years ago, Alabama roots-rockers Drive-By Truckers had themselves a vision. This magnum opus, a rock opera, would tell of a young man’s coming of age in a world of alcohol, drugs and rock. In addition, it would address the good-ol’-boy-laden contradictions of Southern culture (the “duality of the Southern Thing”). Leader Patterson Hood also wanted to embrace the Southern rock he had rejected so long ago as a punk rocker. Enter the roaring, tragic rock tale of Lynyrd Skynyrd to pull together the threads of the narrative. Southern Rock Opera was born.

It’s not all so damn serious as it sounds, though, and this thing rocks like nobody’s business. This CD feels good, looks good (with the Southern-gothic cartoons of the gatefold) and sounds good. For anyone who grew up listening to great vinyl records through the headphones while poring over the album sleeve in your lap, you’ll know what I mean.

Drive-By Truckers boast a smoldering, three-guitar attack that lands directly between Crazy Horse and Skynyrd, and singer Hood wraps his hot rasp around such folklore as the friendship between Skynyrd leader Ronnie Van Zandt and rock icon Neil Young (despite their feud in song). Elsewhere, all sorts of cultural detritus dots the landscape. There’s the race-baiting, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace meeting his maker, and Skynyrd backup singer Cassie Gaines begging for her brother to be let into the group. There’s the twisted metal of a teenage car wreck, the strains of “Free Bird” still rising off the heap as an ambulance arrives. (“It’s a very long song.”) This is primarily Hood’s show, but Mike Cooley contributes the two most rousing tracks: “Zip City,” about pent-up, youthful sexuality, and “Women Without Whiskey,” about the perennial bottle struggle.

And in the end, as with a lot of modern mythology, there’s tragedy. “Angels and Fuselage” finds the airborne Skynyrd awaiting their fate: “And I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next. . . . Scared shitless these angels in the trees are waiting for me,” Hood howls against the unnerving hiss of near silence.

—Erik Hage

The Bottle Rockets
Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot)

The Bottle Rockets, from the wonderfully named Festus, Mo., have been creating honestly rocking albums for the better part of a decade now. They even made one of the all-time-classic car songs with “Thousand Dollar Car,” on 1994’s The Brooklyn Side. On their new disc, Songs of Sahm, they offer up a set of songs written by the late Doug Sahm. Not only does this set offer a fine tour through Sahm’s undercelebrated catalog, it also shows off the band to full effect. They’re a forceful quartet who aren’t simply mimicking the sound of the Sir Douglas Quintet or any of the Cosmic Cowboy’s other combos—they’ve gone to the same potent well, drinking in the diversity of American music.

Lead singer and guitarist Brian Henneman evokes the free-ranging Texas soulfulness of Sahm’s voice. He delivers it all with genuine passion and flair, from the flat-out garage wailing of “She’s About a Mover” to the jazz-samba crooning of “Song of Everything” and the Lone Star country of “Stone Faces Don’t Lie.” Bass player Robert Kearns takes over the mike for three of the set’s 13 numbers, his lighter voice especially well-matched to “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day,” which is as fine a slice of emotionally compelling hippie pop as you’re likely to find. Unlike many other “tribute” albums, Songs of Sahm stands strong and proud next to Sahm’s original work, reminding us what a compelling force Sahm was, and that his music still lives and breathes.

—David Greenberger

The John Scofield Band
Uberjam (Verve)

John Scofield’s latest disc, Uberjam, is his most natural attempt yet to join fusion and funk. In the past few years, the veteran jazz guitarist has worked all kinds of ways to achieve that blend, enlisting the likes of Medeski Martin & Wood and Sex Mob virtuosi into service, with varying results. On Uberjam, he’s found the right formula, part of which is being unpredictable. His new, ultramodern disc even includes a rap, on “I Brake 4 Monster Booty.” It cooks from the jump, thanks to Scofield’s sexy, angular guitar, his twine with the rhythm guitarist and samples of Avi Bortnick, the plummy bass of Jesse Murphy, and Adam Deitch’s livewire drums. “I see this as the promise of fusion that still hasn’t been quite kept,” Scofield has said. “The stuff we’re playing, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to go. We’re making up the rules as we go.” Tunes like the title track, “Snap Crackle Pop,” and the cleverly named, hellzapoppin’ “Ideofunk” make jazz fun again. The purists may cavil, but the music lovers will jump for joy. Uberjam is not only a cool pun, it’s a musical blast.

—Carlo Wolff


The Figgs
Badger (Hearbox)

On Badger, the Figgs create new peaks for themselves. This six-song EP, their third release on the Boston label Hearbox, draws from familiar wells: the Kinks, the Undertones, the Jam, the Beatles. Far from being in the shadow of their influences, the Figgs have had a sound and chemistry all their own since they first started making noise in the Capital Region nearly a decade ago. One of the reasons they survived their major-label machinations (signed-dropped-signed-dropped) is because they know how good they are—not boastfully, just confidently.

Guitarist Mike Gent has blossomed in the band’s trio format, as seen in everything from the anthemic chords of “The Trench” to the garage rumble of “Three Times a Riff.” As is the case with superb bass players, Pete Donnelly has always been this outfit’s secret weapon. And drummer Pete Hayes? Well, every band should have one of him or be content to come up short. Donnelly and Gent also celebrate the lost art of great song titles—the latter in particular loves chopping a word off a phrase, giving it an odd potency (“To Throw Us,” “Send Fever to Guide”). NRBQ/Incredible Casuals guitarist Johnny Spampinato guests on the perfect-pop closing number, “With Pounding Hearts,” a song which, in a perfect world, would be blasting from car radios across the land every summer.

—D.G.


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