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Kind of a Drag

The Old 97s
Drag It Up (New West)

The opening strains of Drag It Up are encouraging: Someone fiercely barks off a “One, two,” then Ken Bethea coaxes some introductory peals of hot twang out of his Telecaster and drummer Phil Peeples takes the handoff like a freight train, barreling ahead with trademark reckless rattleclap. Then Rhett Miller, in butch boy-man mode, suggests, “You’re a bottle cap away, from pushing me too far,” in one of his classic, clever turns of phrase. (Nuggets from the past: “You made a big impression for a girl of your size” or “I thought so much about suicide, parts of me have already died.”) The song—in fierce spirit, bluster and infectiousness—harkens back to 1997’s outstanding Too Far to Care. Great news: Especially since the native Texans hung in the balance a couple of years back as Miller (who moved near Woodstock last year) embarked on a solo career, resulting in a rich, polished, uninspired album on which he decided—in very un-97s fashion—not to swing. (“Dance with them’s that brung ya,” we say in the hills.)

Ultimately, however, only a portion of Drag It Up is up to Old 97s scratch.

The bashed-out “Won’t Be Home,” described above, joins the stridently infectious “New Kid,” the gorgeously acoustic “Adelaide” (which bites a little Simon and Garfunkel) and the nervy “Friends Forever” to constitute an excellent batch of tunes. But elsewhere they come off like a band making an overly conscious effort to rewrite the glory of Fight Songs (1999) and Too Far to Care in particular, stirring up past reference points. The results are too often shadow images. As for “Coahilua,” Bethea’s lead-vocal debut, this one could be eviscerated on so many levels, but it’s best just to consider it a larky aberration (“I turn my microwave on and I cook my chicken ravioli,” sings the guitarist over bouncy, childlike Tex-Mex—like Nick Lowe’s “Half a Boy, Half a Man” with its gears sprung and mind lost). Elsewhere, the group explores new, curiously dreary territory (the Velvet Undergroundish “Valium Waltz,” and the sad shuffle “In the Satellite Rides a Star”).

Over the past decade the Texas group has pretty much created their own genre, adding tinges of west-ern swing, rockabilly, country and Tex-Mex to hook-ridden, Brit-Invasion-influenced pop melodies, and while there’s clearly something a little lost overall on Drag It Up, few artists will write songs as strong as “The New Kid” and “Won’t be Home” this year. Whether that’s worth the price of admission is your call.

—Erik Hage

Bamnan and Silvercork (Bella Union)

Give me a word I don’t know in a title and I’m tipsy; give me a couple of them and I’m downright intoxicated with a sense of having traveled into another land. I don’t even need or want to know what Bamnan or Silvercork mean. Street names? Don’t even tell me, let the mystery endure.

Midlake have created a dozen-song set which flows with a hypnotic, lightly hallucinogenic unity. Draped in keyboards, they’ve done so with a rare and commendable amount of alluring character. As is my wont, I popped the disc into my computer to play, paying no attention to track numbers or titles. It played several times before I began to find myself in familiar locations and needed to find out exactly where I was. And one of the places I then kept returning to was track five. The strange melancholy and oblique poetics of the song “Some of Them Were Superstitious” is carried aloft by dreamscape textures and a melody that now pops into my head throughout the day. The fractured narrative in the lyrics feels alternately like a warning, a promise, an observation, and a prayer. On Bamnan and Silvercork the quintet has infused contemporary electric keyboards with a quietly inventive and bittersweet resilience that few, outside of Robert Wyatt, attain. There’s also bass, guitar and drums, but their judicious employment makes for a sonic whole that is layered and powerfully mysterious.

—David Greenberger

Ray Charles
Genius Loves Company (Concord)

Too bad Ray Charles isn’t around to hype this star-studded duets CD. It’s pretty good in places, forgettable in others, and likely to sell pretty well. Charles’ death June 10 is all the promotion it needs. Besides, trophy performers like Charles’ contemporaries B.B. King and Willie Nelson turn in fairly decent performances, though “It Was a Very Good Year,” a Charles-Nelson tradeoff, is more treacly than convincing.

Even at 73, Charles could get down; he, not Natalie Cole, is the sexy one in their update of “Fever,” and his voice, not Diana Krall’s, gets under your skin in “You Don’t Know Me.” Even though there aren’t enough uptempo tunes—it’s the rare record that features James Taylor singing sprightly, as he and Ray do on “Sweet Potato Pie”—the vibe is pleasant, the arrangements professional. Other relatively upbeat tracks are “Heaven Help Us All,” a nice, churchy turn with Gladys Knight, and a zesty take on “Crazy Love” featuring Charles’ key disciple and tune author Van Morrison. One can be thankful there’s no duet with Eric Clapton.

Despite its gloss and occasional soul, Genius Loves Company may be more memorable for marketing than music. It’s the inaugural disc in a relationship between Concord Records and Hear Music, the custom Starbucks label. That means Starbucks will feature it Sept. 1, the day after it goes on sale in record stores. No word whether Brother Ray was a coffee man. Word how soulful he was comes clear in contrast with others who glory in his presence here: Elton John, Norah Jones, even Michael McDonald (“Hey Girl,” replete with strings, bombs). As a testament, Genius Loves Company isn’t bad. Legacy Ray? No way.

—Carlo Wolff

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