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February 12, 2008

CD Reviews for 2-13-08

Opus MixtumAntietam(CARROT TOP)One way for an indie band to cement cult status is with a release comprising most everything they’ve recorded lately. Listeners feel a deeper kinship to the musicians who’ll share false starts, slight melodic interludes and multiple stabs at an audience-lassoing signature track (what used to be called “a single”).The Louisville/New York trio Antietam has been around way too long to be bothered staking their claim — so naturally, they’re issuing a double album resembling just that sort of career move. It’s counter-intuition worthy of their soul-siblings Yo La Tengo. But hear how often Antietam makes great use of the extra space and time. First of all, no noodling jams. Also, Tara Key often leads and sings as if channeling prime Patti Smith Group but jettisoning the free-verse blathering. Key also remains the most under-recognized guitar genius alive. The high ratio of mood-piece instrumentals and lack of a breakout clear lead vocal eventually throws this Opus slightly out of balance. But treats big and small (the Pixies-derived “1-2-1”; the Rugbys cover “You/I”) are plentiful on these generous discs. —T.E. LyonsThe Geography of LightCarrie Newcomer(ROUNDER)Piece of advice: Listen to the bonus track “Don’t Push Send” first, then again at the end. Then again whenever you just need to laugh out loud. After that, lose yourself in the energy switch from “One Woman and a Shovel” to “Lazarus.” Though drastically different, each song defines Newcomer’s prophetic style and acute storytelling ability. In a day and time when life is so hurried and scattered, Newcomer’s sound gives birth to a wholeness without simplicity; pensive reflection without bleakness; grace, elegance and polished politeness, all the while clearly speaking her truth.If it’s possible to lose yourself in the song of another and find a place of center and balance, a place where even still exists, Newcomer will be that other, playing guitar and singing “The Clean Edge of Change.”The ease of the music alone, which integrates itself as a complementary presence, clings to each word and tone expressed from her deep, rich, alto voice. She brings to mind memories of a Mary Chapin Carpenter performance in a tiny venue in Nashville some years ago. I recall clapping and singing along one minute, and the next, lost in her spell and the depth of her conviction. Perhaps they are each other’s parallel. —Michelle MankerSome Racing, Some StoppingHeadlights(POLYVINYL)In crafting their follow-up to 2006’s Kill Them with Kindness, Champaign, Ill.’s Headlights secluded themselves in a friend’s barn to devote more time to the songwriting process. The band wanted a chance to explore without the hectic confines of a constant touring schedule, and the result is something of a mixed bag. The tracks on Some Racing, Some Stopping feel much more thoughtfully arranged, providing for a smoother listening experience. “Catch Them All” and “Market Girl” are gems and serve as good anchors for the album’s lighter offerings. At the same time, their sound has changed relatively little.Headlights still favors smooth-if-generic indie female vocals and guitar-driven pop harmonies reminiscent of Belle and Sebastian. Furthermore, the deliberate pacing of Some Racing, Some Stopping deprives it of the urgent quality that gave Kill Them with Kindness much of its charm. Still, fans of the band will find a lot to admire here. —Justin KeenanDistrict LineBob Mould(ANTI-)It’s hard not to listen to this and hear Bob Mould thinking: “See, kids, this is how power pop is done. Now drop your mascara and study up.” Elder statesmanship isn’t the theme here, though. So named for Mould’s relocation to D.C., and the subsequent five years he’s lived there, District Line is a slice of the Husker Du/Sugar frontman’s autobiography that’s too earnest to be cynical.    “Yes, yes, that’s all good and cerebral, but does it rock?”    He he. Yep. “Stupid Now” bottles angst, confusion and awkwardness; “Who Needs to Dream?” and “Again and Again” raise longing and separation anxiety to a bittersweet level, right down to the latter’s countrified guitar solo.    Mould’s DJ personality kicks in on “Shelter Me” and “Old Highs New Lows,” but his affinity for the synthetic isn’t reinvention for reinvention’s sake, it’s a soul radiating confidence and authenticity with every passing year. —Mat HerronLove RevivalReba McEntire(HALLMARK)    I admit I’m a Reba fan. I went country about the same time the rest of you all — you remember, when Garth stuffed himself in tight jeans and smashed guitars? — in the mid-’90s. Reba has always been Garth’s female counterpart. She sells out concerts. She hangs out at the No. 1 spot on country charts. She doesn’t smash guitars, but she does change outfits — a lot. So why am I so disappointed with this available-at-Hallmark-only compilation of Ms. Fancy’s best love songs?     Because it’s not what she does best. Love is not her bread and butter. Sorrow, heartache and misery are the most common themes found in her 33 No. 1 Billboard hits. Just think of some of your favorites. “And Still” — about the anguish of bumping into an ex; “It’s Your Call” — about catching a cheating husband; “Does He Love You” — about confronting your husband’s mistress; “Somebody Should Leave” — about a stale marriage; “Little Rock” — about seeking outside “consultation” in a stale marriage.     The only decent song here is her old duet “The Heart Won’t Lie” with Vince Gill. Reba recorded four new songs for this release; the other six come from her back catalogue of more than 30 albums.     The country diva may be known as a fiery red, but it’s in her blues where she shines the best. —Sara Havens Through The Window Of A TrainBlue Highway(ROUNDER)Three lead singers, five pickers and 12 new songs add up to bluegrass bliss.    Known for marrying elements of traditional grass with rock ’n’ roll sensibilities, master musicians Rob Ickes, Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson and Shawn Lane are perennial favorites on the festival circuit.But they are also seasoned studio musicians, and their accumulated virtuosity is beautifully showcased throughout this fine collection of new tunes (especially on “The North Cove”).This group’s strength lies in its vast repertoire and wide appeal. Once again, backwoods purists and big city hippies will all want to get on board for Blue Highway’s unique harmonies and instrumental interplay. —Kevin M. Wilson