Short Cuts 

Back to Blue Mountain; Malkmus goes solo.

Roots

Blue Mountain (Blue Mountain Music)

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The Oxford, Mississippi, band Blue Mountain have endured some tumultuous times during the past few years. Expanding from a three-piece to a quartet, the band released their third album, Tales of a Traveler, in 1999. While it ambitiously expanded their sound, it failed to garner any critical or commercial attention.

Shortly thereafter, the band left its long-time label, Roadrunner, which specialized in heavy-metal acts and didn't seem to know how to effectively market a country-rock band. Subsequently, singer Cary Hudson and bassist Laurie Stirratt's marriage ended in divorce. Because their romance had spawned several songs, many fans thought the band would likewise split.

But, as their self-released fourth album testifies, Blue Mountain -- again a trio with Hudson, Stirratt, and drummer Frank Coutch -- are made of tougher stuff than that. A thoroughly researched, sensitively played collection of traditional Southern and Appalachian songs, Roots captures the jangly rowdiness and rambunctious spirit of the band's most memorable work as it relates stories of boozers, losers, outlaws, and railroad hobos.

"Banks of the Pontchartrain" tells of a railroad stray who finds love in the black hair and warm home of a Creole girl. It is a gentle ode to a lost opportunity, and Hudson's voice shines with a warm grace, subtly drawing out the tale's bittersweet emotion. The raucous send-up of the well-known "Rye Whiskey" sways like a drunk, and "Spring of '65" sounds ancient and otherworldly, Hudson's plaintive vocals and precise guitar evoking 1865 as if it were 1965.

And "Rain and Snow," the album's most haunting track, resonates with an appropriate storminess. Hudson invests the tale of a man who murders his wife with a sense of deep regret and profound loss. Lending the song an atmosphere that is no less than gothic, he howls and moans like a truly tortured soul, while his elemental guitar work lurks threateningly.

The album's closer, "Little Stream of Whiskey," finds Coutch assuming vocal duties as he tells of a dying hobo's last wishes. His rusty-hinge voice fits the song perfectly, lending its unique vision of a whiskey-soaked afterlife a rough, drunken swagger.

Ultimately, Roots serves as a reassertion of the band's identity, a reconnection with its influences and with the dark corners of Southern music. Despite the band's several recent splits -- with its fourth member, with Roadrunner, and between Hudson and Stirratt -- Blue Mountain haven't sounded so together in a long time. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

Blue Mountain will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Friday, March 2nd.

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus (Matador)

When Pavement first emerged from the indie scene in the early Nineties with a sound both rawer and richer than any of their cohorts, mystery was part of the allure. Band photos were scarce and the group's core members -- high school buddies Steve Malkmus and Scott Kannberg -- were known solely by the monikers SM and Spiral Stairs. The mystery matched the music: cryptic, dissonant, yet stunningly melodic noizetoons that made the post-punk milieu of Suburban Anywhere seem strange and romantic for the first and last time. Back then, no one saw a conventional rock story in the band's future -- "maturation," break-up, solo moves.

But here we are. With Pavement no more, generational icon Malkmus has released his first solo record and it's a doozy. Stephen Malkmus doesn't compare with the three essential Pavement albums -- Slanted and Enchanted; Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain; and Brighten the Corners -- but it's a more focused, more engaging affair than fine second-tier-band works like Wowee Zowee and Terror Twilight. Backed by a Portland indie duo Malkmus has dubbed the Jicks, this solo move is close enough to the mid-tempo, sugary crunch of late-era Pavement to confirm that Malkmus was the musical as well as verbal soul of his old band, though the spark-filled guitar interplay between Malkmus and Kannberg is missed.

Malkmus' hyperliterate songwriting here is more direct and narrative-focused than before, displaying a more distanced, literary wit than he did in Pavement: songs about Ancient Greece, autobiographies of Yul Brynner and Captain Hook. But the best moments are still the most personal. "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," a sardonic yet compassionate take on young love amid the upper middle-class -- "Jennifer takes a man/in a Sixties cover band/He's the Ess-Dog/Sean, if you wish/She's 18/He's 31/She's a rich girl/He's the son/of a Coca-Cola middleman" -- returns Malkmus to his native turf with truly stunning results. It's the most straightforward song he's ever written, and one of the best. Almost as great is the soaring "Church on White," the most intimate and emotional song on the album, which has Malkmus taking stock of his own shape-shifting legacy with the chorus, "All you really wanted was everything/Plus everything/And in truth I only poured you/Half a lie."

How many other artists have stepped immediately out of a great band and released a solo album this good? John Lennon definitely, Paul Westerberg maybe. It's a short list. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Liquored Up and Lacquered Down

Southern Culture on the Skids (TVT)

I remember the intense feeling of joy that rushed through me a couple of years back when I saw that big marquee over East Parkway. It read "Southern Culture on the Skids at the Mid-South Fair." It was perfect. It was beauty. It was at once an announcement of a party pending and a statement of undeniable fact. It also contained the exact blend of verity and irony that puts SCOTS songs a dozen diesel lengths ahead of all the other guitar-shredding trailer-park poseurs who cropped up in the mid-'90s. Now, after two years without a record deal, SCOTS is finally back with Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, a mighty fine 13-song release that, in spite of its technical superiority, lacks the rocket-fueled punch of the group's previous efforts.

"I Learned to Dance in Mississippi" is far and away the best song on the album. With its fat Stax groove and approving nod to the funky bluff city we all live in, this song about a wild night at Junior Kimbrough's juke joint should certainly appeal to the Memphis hipsterati. Likewise, when Mary Huff, whose husky voice sounds better than ever, croons the soulful garage-girl anthem "Hittin' on Nothin'," it sounds like a Hellcats reunion.

Memphis isn't the only Southern music town whose sound gets sampled on this disc. The groovy retro licks on "Pass the Hatchet" and Rick Miller's spoken "Let me chop it/Let me chop it/TIMBER!" will remind folks that SCOTS owes a great debt to Athens' own B-52s. And while we're talking Georgia, it should be noted that both "The Haw River Stomp" and "King of the Mountain" sound too much like the Georgia Satellites to be taken very seriously. Even worse, the Mexicali-pop of the album's title track creeps into territory hitherto solely owned and operated by the parrot-king himself, Jimmy Buffet. Sadly, the thin ode to booze, big hair, and beauty queens isn't exactly a vast improvement on "Cheeseburger in Paradise."

Southern Culture on the Skids have always worn their roots on their sleeve, but Liquored Up and Lacquered Down almost seems like some kind of tribute album. It's solid front to back but desperately in need of some hellfire to make it cook. -- Chris Davis

Grade: B

Southern Culture on the Skids will be at the New Daisy Theatre on Friday, March 2nd, with the Forty-Fives.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

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