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Big City Sin and Small Town Redemption (Fueled By Ramen)

Rock and country used to seem like such strange bedfellows. Those big-city rock & rollers just couldn’t understand the small-town subtleties of down-home country music, could they? Sure, there were groups that toed the line—the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were some of the earliest to do the mash, and the Eagles could have made a career out of it if it weren’t for all that coke—but those acts generally fell to one side of the proverbial fence. So, in the early ’90s, when Uncle Tupelo fought their way out of Belleville with a blend of front-porch plucking and punk rock’s two-fisted rebel yell, the results were striking enough to spearhead an entire movement. Call it what you will, but that whole “No Depression” thing was as, if not more, groundbreaking than the rap-metal that emerged around the same time. I guess country and rock get along better than we first thought they would.

The debut full-length from Tacoma, Wash.-based rockers Roy is another entry into the big bucket of Kentucky-fried rock we’ve seen over the last decade or so. Formed from the ruins of Northwestern post-hardcore bands Botch and Harkonen, these scruffy indie boys have made a complete stylistic 180-degree turn on Big City Sin. Mix the twang and hurtle of the Refreshments, Old 97s and Lemonheads with a liberal dash of the Wedding Present’s sonic moroseness, and you’re in Roy country, baby. The album opens with a lo-fi piano stanza that blooms into the supremely poppy cowpunk of “Something That’s Real,” and it’s all over the map—at least the middle part—from there. “Better Head North” is a classic long-drive-on-a-desolate-moonlit-desert-road song, brought into the 21st century by a thick layer of electronic gurgles that wallpaper the background. The music gets Camper Van quirky on “They Cut the Cord” and “Darryl Worley Forgotten,” and lead singer Ben Verellen is not afraid to get topical, tackling the difficult subject of homosexual unions on “Never Getting Married” and chastising our country’s profit-driven health-care system on “Prescription Drugs.”

Matt Bayles’ (Pearl Jam, Deftones) production is clear and distinct; big, chimey Telecasters brushing shoulders with bright acoustic guitars throughout, and the drums burst through the mix like firecrackers. On some of the more fleshed-out tunes, Verellen’s lead vocal nearly gets drowned out by the flood of guitars, and his melodies occasionally fall flat, but this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the album. The band’s delivery also has a certain tentativeness, which is not surprising—we’re talking about a bunch of punk rockers trying to play it straight here, and it doesn’t always seem like they’re doing what comes naturally. At times, it feels like the Roy boys just want to bust out and go crazy, but it’s their loose, somewhat mellow vibe that points to their ability to succeed as musical chameleons. Big City Sin is just a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll, and that’s all right by me.

—John Brodeur

Katrina & the Waves
The Original Recordings 1983-1984 (Bongo Beat)

Katrina & the Waves took shape after the demise of the Soft Boys in 1981 when Kimberly Rew reconnected with Alex Cooper. They had played together in the mid-’70s in the Waves. With the addition of husky-voiced Katrina Leskanich, Rew’s songwriting took flight with a new vigor. Combining Beatle-influenced pop smarts with R&B swagger, the band embarked on a well-deserved run of hit singles and international touring in the ’80s.

The Original Recordings 1983-1984 combine their two albums, originally released in Canada on the Attic label. These releases predate the band’s signing to EMI/Capitol worldwide, at which time they rerecorded many of the songs. Hearing these sides 20 years later, it’s easy to see why they were plucked from the world of indies into the major leagues. Their biggest hit, “Walking on Sunshine,” sounds as fresh as ever here in its original form (a distinctive horn part was added to the later chart-topping version). The smaller production budget they had to work with serves these recordings well, as none suffers from any of the excesses of the era that have dated the works of some of their contemporaries.

—David Greenberger

Count Basie and His Orchestra
America’s #1 Band! (Sony Legacy)

Back in the LP days, a corner- stone of any jazz collection was the Super Chief set, offering 28 selections on two records. Until Sony Legacy’s recent retrospective, we’ve had no CD equivalent to cover Basie’s Columbia years. Don’t ditch Super Chief yet—it has a few unique tracks—but at last there’s a four-CD set that mines the Columbia sessions and presents the result in a nicely restored, well- annotated box.

Basie’s earliest recordings were as a sideman with bands led by Walter Page and Bennie Moten; when Moten died in 1936, his group regrouped under Basie’s leadership and attracted the attention of producer John Hammond, who hurried to sign them with Columbia. But Decca nabbed Basie first. You’ll also want the Decca recordings, available in a three-CD set, if for no other reason than the bounty of Lester Young solos.

Start with this set, however. It roars into being with the four sides recorded on Nov. 9, 1936, as Jones-Smith, Inc. (this was to protect the already Decca-signed Basie), in which jazz meets swing and you hear playing that’s at once tight and loose, as improbable as that sounds. Only five instrumentalists, but it has all of the power of a larger unit.

Disc one and half of disc two concentrate on small-group recordings, and also offer sessions from 1939 to 1950. Young is heard in the “Basie’s Bad Boys” session from Feb. 13, 1939, and is back for big-band studio sessions in 1939 and 1940 and a bunch of previously unreleased aircheck recordings from the same years.

That much Lester is more than worth the price of the set, but don’t overlook the other featured artists, from the trombone virtuosity of young Dickie Wells and trumpeter Buck Clayton to the effortless vocals by Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes and Billie Holiday.

Although the later players in Basie’s early bands haven’t attracted the same adulation, it’s a treat to hear the likes of Clark Terry and J.J. Johnson in the beginnings of their careers.

There’s not a bad session on this set, and, completist that I am, I only regret there wasn’t room for more. The sound quality varies tremendously, reflecting a variety of source material, but the digital cleanups don’t sound as if too much intervention was used. The annotations by Loren Schoenberg are invaluable.

At their best, the well-known bands of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw could swing with the best of them, but Basie at his best transcended everything around him. This is a must-have jazz cornerstone.

—B.A. Nilsson

3 Greater Than 4 (self-released)

EN-DoR-PHin’s 3 Greater Than 4 is soaked with a powerful, ashen soundscape. Careful use of electronics works for the band, as they resist the temptation to painfully futz about in such follies like so many other “experimental” metal bands do when they try to do something they obviously can’t. Thankfully, it’s a nonissue for eN-DoR-PHin. Lyrically, we see that the band have grown into a very intriguing metaphorical poesy, which sheds its disturbing lamplight on American life, converging at times upon desperation, others at an almost resigned disgust.

Drummer Aaron Wray is, as always, a monster here, with a good ear for keeping busy without killing the blood flow with unnecessary fodder. Along with bassist Shlyke, he bolts the tempo of songs like “Just Another Miscarriage“ fast to the floor with industrious reports. Jack-of-all-trades Chris Masse is at his resonant best when barking out lyrics in an almost-hiphop fashion (as in “Tips For an Ergonomic Workspace”) as opposed to the lengthy harmony threads up and down the song’s base key. Maybe it’s because the vocals, seemingly very loud in the mix for John Delehanty being at the knobs, tend to draw the listener away from his own guitar when doing so. All in all, however, a worthy missive.

—Bill Ketzer

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