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Pop Music Killed the Alt-Country Star

Three new releases prove there is life after No Depression.

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The alt-country movement is dead.

Also known as y'allternative and insurgent country, the genre that gave us Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks, among many others, has breathed its last breath. And while there's no autopsy to perform or any evidence to gather, it seems apparent that the time of death was 1999 and the cause was pop music. That year saw the release of Wilco's Pet Sounds-inspired Summerteeth and the Old 97's poppy Fight Songs -- strong albums by artists who had outgrown the genre that gave them their starts.

Perhaps one of the major reasons for alt-country's success during the '90s -- and one of its constricting factors -- was its emphasis on song over sound. It was a songwriter's market, attracting many aspiring musicians to its fold and nurturing their talent for lyrics and melodies. All anyone needed was an acoustic guitar and a few capable backup musicians. The music itself was rarely ever revolutionary, but songwriters working in this genre were able to produce some stellar work while cultivating devoted fan bases.

But as the community that formed beneath the No Depression banner became increasingly insular, the warm reverence that marked the genre soon curdled into keep-it-real elitism. When bands sought to expand their sound outside alt-country, which was an inevitable trend, fans booed as often as they cheered -- and never so loudly as for the Old 97's Fight Songs. Many fans and Dallas-area journalists criticized the band for disowning its roots, but they didn't realize that this transition had been a gradual process beginning with the band's debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome, a jangly alt-country discovery. The follow-up, Wreck Your Life, saw that acoustic twang develop into a harder, more electric sound, while the band's Elektra debut, Too Far to Care, was loud and angry and gloriously messy. A more radical departure, Fight Songs remains the band's shining moment, a 12-song meditation on lost loves and lost cats that places equal emphasis on song and sound.

So in the context of this progression of twang to pop, the band's new album, Satellite Rides (Elektra), sounds like a step back. It has more twang than Fight Songs, more pop than Too Far to Care. But it retains all the elements that have made the Old 97's one of the most fascinating groups around. Singer-songwriter Rhett Miller remains compellingly ambiguous: He's both the sweet-natured boy who lavishes girls with affection and the rebellious troublemaker who exudes a slightly dangerous sexuality. And the rest of the band -- bassist Murry Hammond, drummer Philip Peeples, and guitarist Ken Bethea -- do more than simply back him up; playing as a tight unit, they infuse the songs with personality and dynamic energy.

The album displays a unique flair and cohesion: Each song seems to have its own complementary twin or twisted doppelganger. The first single, "King of All the World," shows Miller on top of the world, a strange place for a guy who thinks too much about how relationships inevitably sour. But by the second-to-last song, the brilliant "Book of Poems" -- the equivalent to Fight Songs' "Busted Afternoon" in its propulsive hook progression, if not in tone -- he's having nightmares again and his book of poetry isn't enough. One song later, he's a nervous guy again, wishing us goodbye. Miller remains unbending in his faith in love and romance, even though he admits he's been hurt by it many times: "I believe in love," he sings on "Rollerskate Skinny," "but it don't believe in me."

While it's not quite as consistent as its predecessor, Satellite Rides is an ingenious album that brims with humor and heart. The sound may be a little different from the Old 97's earlier work, but the songs remain the same: unflaggingly energetic and catchy, simultaneously funny and heartbreakingly sad.

The same is true of the Old 97's one-time peer Joe Henry. His sound may have evolved into something completely different from alt-country, but the elements that made his early work stand out still shine on his more recent releases.

When founding member Mark Olson left No Depression giants the Jayhawks in 1997, there was a rumor that Henry would replace him. Whether the product of actual discussions between the band and the singer or just wishful thinking by many distressed fans, the collaboration never happened. And not surprisingly either: The year before, Henry had released Trampoline, an album that completely disowned his alt-country background for a more urban and experimental sound.

Such a transition would have been a career-ending risk had the album -- and its successor, the near-perfect Fuse -- not been as assured and revelatory as it was. Trampoline set drum loops and erstwhile Helmet leader Paige Hamilton's scorching guitars against Henry's sophisticated songwriting, and the more eclectic Fuse exquisitely combined jazzy neosoul crooning and dark cabaret pop.

While his new album, Scar (Mammoth), doesn't top Fuse for cohesion and originality, it does exceed it in ambition. With an elegantly smoky atmosphere and an impressive roster of guest musicians, including jazz legend Ornette Coleman and pianist Brad Mehldau, Scar sounds at times like a concept album, especially with so many names in the song titles: "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation" (which gets my early vote for best song title of the year), "Nico Lost a Small Buddha," and "Edgar Bergen."

Like its predecessor, Scar also showcases Henry's keenly observant songwriting. The Richard Pryor song is a poetic funeral dirge that examines the comedian's influence on American culture, his uneasy relationship with his audience, and his failing health brought on by years of drug abuse and disabling multiple sclerosis. "You watched me while I tried to fall, you can't bear to watch me land," Henry sings as Coleman delivers a beautifully angular saxophone solo.

But the big story on Scar is "Stop," which was rearranged and renamed "Don't Tell Me" by Henry's sister-in-law Madonna for her most recent album, Music. With vocals as detached as the stiff beats that bubble beneath the melody, Madonna's version sounds antiseptic and unconvincing next to Henry's exotic take on the tune. He brings out the fiery sexuality in the lyrics, and the exotic percussion and Middle Eastern-sounding strings reveal strange, complex emotions.

Further widening the rift between Henry and his folksy beginnings, Scar is an accomplished album full of dark, closeted emotions that proves he still has a gift for lovelorn lyrics and sharp melodies. These are the same talents that made him successful as an alt-country artist, but in this more exotic setting, they bloom more brilliantly.

Once considered to be the saviors of alt-country, North Carolina's Whiskeytown seemed to have all the ingredients to break through the genre barrier and garner mainstream success: a young, tortured-soul singer named Ryan Adams; a sound that wasn't too country; and a promising deal with major label Outpost Records. But in 1999, during the round of mergers that restructured almost every aspect of the music business, Outpost dissolved and shelved Whiskeytown's third album indefinitely. Dealing with that shattering disappointment and amid squabbles among the musicians -- of whom only Adams and violinist Caitlin Cary were founding members -- Whiskeytown followed its label's lead and dissolved too, leaving that last album unreleased.

Some two years later, upstart Nashville label Lost Highway Records has made Whiskeytown's heretofore-unheard swan song, the horribly titled Pneumonia (Lost Highway), available at last. It's a calculated risk for the new imprint: Because the band is now defunct, the album is virtually unpromotable -- no videos, no tours, no radio or television appearances.

Fortunately, Pneumonia might be good enough to overcome that handicap and secure the band's legacy as No Depression leaders as well as to perhaps gain Lost Highway some prestige points from fans and critics. It's easily the band's most accomplished and accessible album to date, despite -- or as a result of -- the fact that Whiskeytown seemed torn between the safety of the alt-country umbrella and the excitement of experimenting with and expanding their sound.

Pneumonia's most outstanding and accomplished tracks are also its most bizarre and unexpected. Lolling along on Hawaiian-sounding ukulele, psychedelic flutes, and bossa nova beats, "Paper Moon" indulges in some sweetly eclectic orchestration that recalls the grandeur of old Disney soundtracks. And "What the Devil Wanted" loops a dark, muted piano theme behind Adams' vocals, which, plaintively void of any twang, are treated to sound like a scratchy record. The result is evocative and mysterious, and the song ranks among the best the band has ever produced.

At the forefront of Pneumonia are Adams' gravelly voice and his songwriting, both of which display a greater range of clarity and emotion to match the band's more diverse musical backdrop. The further he and the band stray from their alt-country roots, the more dynamic and original the music is. And it's truly a shame that a group finally on the cusp of creating something memorable disbanded before they could reap the rewards. Pneumonia is Whiskeytown's best and most consistent collection of songs, and it hints that had they stayed together, they might have lived up to all the expectations.

Ultimately, the alt-country movement and its binding sense of community may have run out of momentum, but certain elements of the music -- especially the value it placed on intelligent, meaningful songcraft -- still thrive in the works of artists like the Old 97's and Joe Henry.

In other words, alt-country is dead. Long live alt-country.

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