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Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson has titled his forthcoming album To All the Girls…, and appropriately it finds the octogenarian red-headed stranger dueting with 18 fine female voices, including those belonging to Dolly, Loretta, Mavis and, for some reason, Sheryl Crow. Tonight, though, will be all about Willie and his nasal bleats, a sound that can only sound good in a Willie Nelson song like “Whiskey River,” “Crazy” or “On the Road Again.” With Lily Meola.

Wed., Sept. 18, 8 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 19, 8 p.m., 2013

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Kid Rock+Sheryl Crow

One in Nashville mainstream country, the other in rap metal pyromania, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow first came together in the cheating heart confessional “Picture” in 2002. They’ve since returned with another barstool duet, “Collide,” that makes the most of their odd-couple chemistry–Sheryl Crow humanizes the Kid, while he returns her to her low-down roots. Like chasing a shot of Jagermeister with glass of honeyed bourbon, watch beauty meet the mook tonight, including sets from both performer’s exhaustive catalogues.

Tue., July 12, 7 p.m., 2011

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Mindy Smith

After a few years spent exploring the rope-burn line between country and pop with confidence, insight, and a bit of sweet swagger, Mindy Smith has, with studio album No. 3, identified the gene that establishment types like Sheryl Crow have lost. Smith is no slouch in the playin’ and singin’ categories–she could probably sing you the American country songbook over a few bottles of whiskey. But boots have never been the only thing under her bed, and it’s that balance that reveals records like 2009’s Stupid Love as the kind of thing more people should really be hearing. It’s more than just 100 miles from Memphis. With Dana Parish.

Thu., Aug. 26, 8 p.m., 2010

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Sheryl Crow

Brought to you by the fine folks at Crystal Light, Sheryl Crow plays this relatively small room tonight in support of the Nature Conservancy, which will receive 100 percent of ticket proceeds. The occasion? World Water Day. The singer’s latest, 2008’s uneven Detours, was a little grab-bag, but Crow’s catalog is a testament to the consistency of her hit-making ability.

Mon., March 22, 7 p.m., 2010

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Gorgeous Ladies of Alt-Folk Wrestling

Carlene Carter is 52, Sheryl Crow 46, Shelby Lynne 39, Allison Moorer 35, Tift Merritt 32, Kathleen Edwards 28—quite a span, so don’t call them a generation. Only Lynne and Moorer are actual siblings, not to mention survivors of parental murder-suicide whose new records consist primarily of cover versions. Only Moorer and Crow have dueted on the same Kid Rock song; only Lynne and Carter have ever had more than momentary success on the country singles chart, and it’s been a while. Crow and Lynne have, by far, the thickest press packets this time out, but where Lynne (who has one Grammy) got a six-page Times Sunday-magazine feature, Crow (who has nine Grammys) had to settle for a Deborah Solomon Q&A. Crow’s previous album, 2005’s uncharacteristically introverted Wildflowers, was her career’s floppingest flop at 948,000 copies, a figure any of the other five would be happy to get half of anytime; not surprisingly, she switches labels less often and still records for a major. She’s also recovered from breast cancer. Edwards, who comes from Canada, and Merritt, who recorded in France, are both on their third albums. Carter used to be Nick Lowe’s wife and is now married to soap-opera star Joseph Breen; Moorer’s husband is Steve Earle, who has been known to appear on The Wire.

Still. They’re all Adult Alternative by this point, right? Not crass enough for country radio (even in the critically sanctioned age of Miranda Lambert), but tastefully at home in the middlebrow Starbucks/Paste/NPR milieu. And in a dismal first quarter wherein Kimya and Alicia and Keyshia and Hannah and Sara (that’d be Bareilles—look it up) are suggesting that female artists (presumably selling to more than a few female fans) might be the biz’s last best hope, these Triple-A all-stars are all back in the racks—with albums less exciting than the new one by 62-year-old Dolly Parton, no less. So forgive my lumping them together.

Shelby Lynne first—she just opened with her best sales week ever, and she’s got the most Pazz & Jop potential. What you might have read about Just a Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway): nine Dusty Springfield covers, one original, all Barry Manilow’s idea. What you might not have read: tempos sluggish enough to keep Robitussin in business. That said, the two Bacharach-David songs benefit from Lynne’s light touch, the two songs about morning sex benefit from Phil Ramone’s almost dub-like open space and tick-tock percussion; and the two songs about neighbors residing in rundown ‘hoods benefit from an ominous-enough swamp-soul groove. (And right, Shelby wisely avoids Dusty’s biggest hit—you know, the one with the Pet Shop Boys!) But her attempts at jazzy phrasing came off less ridiculous back in her pre-critic-sanctioned western-swung Nashville days, and Lovin’ is already swinging her pendulum back toward “overrated” like nothing since her 2000 culturati breakthrough.

Shelby’s younger sis, Allison Moorer, likewise seems to be banking on coffee-shopping boomers overhearing her interpretations of the more familiar oldies on Mockingbird (New Line). Her marketing concept, though, casts a wider net: woman songwriters who aren’t Lil Mama! The Julie Miller, Gillian Welch, and especially Patti Smith songs, wherein producer Buddy Miller erects a sturdy if stodgy statue of folk-blues drone, at least set up some semblance of mood. And crooning that bawdy old Nina Simone number about her bowl needing sugar was probably fun. But Moorer’s mostly dishing out wallflower wallpaper and schoolmarm folk, while her rote revival of “Both Sides Now” is almost pointless enough to make Herbie Hancock seem courageous in comparison. Maybe she’ll win a Grammy, too.

On paper, covering “Ring of Fire” seems just as dead-end—but how Moorer slows it down is surprisingly tolerable, and may well help people remember that June Carter Cash wrote it. June died in 2003, four months before Johnny; Stronger (Yep Roc), the latest from Carlene Carter (June’s daughter and Johnny’s stepdaughter), is being billed as a “recovery” record (hey, it worked for Rosanne Cash), but it sounds less heavy-handed than that suggests. It’s also more pure pop than the lounge kitsch that Carter’s ex-hubby Lowe has been selling lately, with some recognizable rockabilly clippity-clop, some fake Fleetwood Mac harmonies almost worthy of Little Big Town, and a “Jesus Is Just Alright” melody in “On to You” in case you forgot that producer John McFee used to be a Doobie Brother. But the only time Carlene really cranks up her singing is on “I’m So Cool,” a proto–Gretchen Wilson tomboy shit-kicker that Carter first recorded on Musical Shapes in 1980.

Tift Merritt doesn’t kick much shit, but Moorer might agree with her claim that “all girls go through a Joni Mitchell phase,” and the well-regarded alumna of North Carolina’s alt-country sphere definitely spends Another Country (Fantasy) exploring hers. The other country is France; Tift closes with a oui-oui slice of café chanson and murmurs through most of the rest of the album as if she’s still groggy in her garret. Things pick up slightly in the middle: melody swiped from the Traveling Wilburys in track 7, some jaunty horns in track 8, and most alert of all: “My Heart Is Free,” with thick guitar fuzz supporting an apparent tale of a soldier shooting his sergeant to escape the war. Then it’s back to the Land of Nod.

Sheryl Crow’s thinking about the war, too. Maybe too much. Her muddled protests on the wordy and unwieldy Detours (A&M) map out some absurd amalgamation of Prince, Dylan, Marley, and Madonna (the falafel-joint world-beat mantra “Peace Be Upon Us” is straight Ray of Light.) She means well, though: Even “God Bless This Mess” makes for a bearable refrigerator magnet until the towers come down. She also sounds reasonably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed through most of it—cod-reggae fixation or no, Bill Bottrell, who produced Crow’s blockbuster Tuesday Night Music Club debut 15 years ago, gives her a decent bubblegummy bounce to chew on. But her most coherent politics show up in the breakup songs. And, sorry: If you’re concerned about petroleum consumption, you might think twice before writing an Armageddon fantasy about how, after the riots of 2017, “gasoline will be free, yeah yeah yeah.” (Also inadvisable: hiring jam-folk bore Ben Harper to stodge up the ending.)

Ottawa-born Kathleen Edwards’s “Oil Man’s War,” off her proudly Canada-centric Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder), is more down-to-earth: Basically, to dodge the draft, a horny boy and girl escape to the Great White North, where they’ll have a baby and open a store downstairs. Edwards isn’t averse to creative-writing notebook sing-song; there’s something affected about the way she’s always stretching out vowels. But studio aces—notably keyboard Heartbreaker and former Carlene Carter collaborator Benmont Tench—help a lot. And more than all these other sob sisters, Edwards just might convince you she’s living in the material world. Three of her set’s better songs talk about performing onstage, and the metaphor-packed “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”—which seems to concern a sisterly crush on a bandmate—is a Canuck tour de force, from its Gretzky-and-McSorley hockey references to its hopes for “heavy rotation on the CBC.”

But the real State of the Provinces address is the one that takes its name from the national anthem: “Oh Canada,” which pushes its Crazy Horse buildup skyward as it tackles a country’s see-no-evil denial of racism and violence. By album’s end, Edwards earns the six-minute smooth-jazz string-and-sax stretch-out “Goodnight, California”; you get the idea that she deserves the rest. And also that, like Joni, she might still have a little money riding on the Maple Leafs.

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Shame and Sensibility

Lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines has always had a warm voice that nonetheless contains flicks of the whip, and “Not Ready to Make Nice” is perfect for it: minor chord at the start, slow but not a dirge, sets us up for the lash we know is coming. But the words don’t cut as deep as they should. Look, you guys were blackballed and terrorized, and the chill and the fear still remain for anyone who wants to make a living in or near country music. In the first verse, Natalie tells us, “I’m through with doubt/There’s nothing left to figure out,” but in the second we find there’s plenty still to figure out: “How in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody so over the edge/That they’d write me a letter, sayin’ that I’d better/Shut up and sing or my life would be over?” OK, Natalie, try to answer your own question. What is it about the Dixie Chicks that provoked such a hysterical reaction, given the puniness of what you said? The statement that set the mob howling and got the Chicks sandblasted was this: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” That’s enough to inspire mass outrage, bonfires, death threats? What’s wrong with the people out there? What’s wrong in country music? To point at the outliers who threaten murder is actually to sidestep the questions. What’s gone wrong with the run of the mill, the gleeful boycotters and blackballers, and those others who just went along, who caved in against their better instincts?

Not that I’d have wanted such questions to dominate. The angriest songs on the Chicks’ new Taking the Long Way are the best; “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the crucial first single, reminds us the fight’s not over. But the heart of the album is the subtly ambitious second half. The styles are familiar enough — Eagles and Beatles, Sheryl Crow, Martha & the Vandellas — and the idea of mixing styles and singing them gently is right out of the early ’70s. What’s very ’00s, though, is how much the Chicks pack in, vocals piling one atop the other, instruments crowding around but each moving in a somewhat different direction. And occasionally, in the more personal lyrics, there’s an intellectual restlessness to match the musical one. In “Voice Inside My Head,” Natalie sings, “I want/I need/Somehow to believe in the choice I made and I’m better off this way” — that is, better off with the husband and child she has rather than with the man she threw over 10 years ago. But the song gives us two Natalies, one as she is and one imagining she could have been someone different. What would have happened if the Chicks had a similar double view toward the political events that engulfed them?

Country music itself has a double view: first, that the world is right and that our values are four-square, even if as individuals we struggle and cheat and damage each other and screw up; and second, that our world is going under, taken down by those who buy us out and belittle us. And we secretly buy into our own inferiority. The Dixie Chicks rose above this by representing a blonde girl-power glamour while playing a country music that felt liberated and guilt-free. ‘Cept underneath this was the sense that they were just playing country rather than being country, and this was part of their appeal, representing country’s noncountry urges. Now, in the statement that set the rage fires burning, the Chicks weren’t literally saying they were ashamed of Texas, but that’s what it comes down to: Texas is responsible for nurturing Bush, and Bush is something to be ashamed of. And with Texas comes the whole South, and the country audience in general, who took it personally and went nutso. Of course, that audience was being chickenshit for then ostracizing, rather than engaging, the Chicks. But to engage would mean acknowledging the insecurity and shame.

This album may be the Dixie Chicks’ best. Still, an opportunity feels lost. At this point, there’s no way for them to communicate with their detractors, but I wish they’d felt their way into their detractors’ innards.

The Dixie Chicks play Madison Square Garden Tuesday at 7:30, $40 — $90.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

This ’70s Show

Pals at the Institute for Advanced Study, working with a team of renegade SABRmetricians, have developed a model for calculating the top musical act of any given decade. Without going into the intricacies and trade secrets, the math stresses three basic factors: spanning the period; always being good; and ignoring basically modernist virtues like authenticity, originality, and influence. These are fine things; they’re just not necessary conditions for pop.

In short, if you stick around without ever sucking, whether you change history or not, it’ll turn out you were a genius. For the late-breaking ’50s, Elvis cruises. The ’60s are a two-horse race, Dylan barely losing out to the Fabs. The ’70s are tough: Magisterially brilliant acts like the Clash suffer from lack of presence, so Led Zep sneaks in past P-Funk, and even I don’t understand the math on that one. The ’80s are uncontested Prince (don’t even get me started about how few songs the Fifth Jackson released). The ’90s reveal something weird and interesting: Tori Amos, artist of the decade. This requires second or third thoughts, but if you want to argue, you’re probably a boy.

Sheryl Crow shows up a minute late. But if we take the span 1993-2002 as a sort of thought experiment, it’s apparent the question shouldn’t be “Is Sheryl Crow any damn good?” It’s “Who’ll induct her into the Hall of Fame?” As the capper of the Crow decade, C’mon, C’mon is almost perfect—seeming absurdly front-loaded (three great rockers, a one-song lull, and the flawless title ballad) until you hear five more gems on the backside. Only the tragic decision to duet with former employer Don Henley mars the ride. Such grace should be no surprise; starting from a pretty riveting debut, each record has been better than the last, with the exception of the Difficult Second Record. Even that had deep delights, including “If It Makes You Happy,” which did more with less than anything this side of “Free Fallin’.” Like the greatest pop songs, it offered exaggerated permission to have fun, and dark seeds of melancholy that would bloom in you when the sun went way way down.

Though the rating method seems to make a god of consistency, Crow has swapped engines on the fly. Inside its avowedly tipsy boogie, ’93’s “All I Wanna Do” cached slick jazz changes; by the time she was jamming with the Dixie Chicks in Central Park she had moved through little blues and big ballads into being the best country singer working in rock, even co-architecting Stevie Nicks’s comeback as a witchy-tonk woman. That’s where we’re at now; if you have a soft spot for Sheryl Crow and think you don’t like Nashville, you’re in serious denial. Of course, c&w has long been the secret of every heartland-to-Hollywood badass in a snakeskin vest, which at least explains that whole Kid Rock affinity.

If her arc’s been an easy motion from strength to strength, that’s replicated within the confines of C’mon. There’s scarcely a strained moment: no indulgent tracks, no big statements, no irritable grasping after much of anything. From lead single “Soak Up the Sun” down to “Hole in My Pocket,” there’s a sense that beyond the song itself, each hook and groove, there’s not much at stake—that winning is losing but with better weather. “Abilene” borrows a line from Tori, but when the Strange Little Girl wondered, “When you gonna make up your mind?” it began the most freighted query ever: “When you gonna love you as much as I do?” Sheryl (working for the moment with a Dixie Chick, a Heartbreaker, and a Revolution) offers as a follow-up, “When you gonna get out of bed?” Whenever. Is it nice out?

Crow’s lack of metaphysical scope explains why she’ll always seem trivial compared to any number of acts. Worshiping trailblazers and hardcore individualists is part of our ideological inheritance—how the West was won, and all that. And it’s hard to conceive of perfecting the ride down the great highway as a kind of artistic ambition. This is our mistake, not hers. And, in her gracious way, she seems intent on pointing this out. C’mon steadily invokes the ’70s, from the lensflare-basted happy-hippie cover pic (the best since Exit Planet Dust) to throwaway mentions of “freebird” and the Clash. One might say the ’70s were the decade defined by lack of metaphysical scope; in that way Crow’s had a concept career celebrating them. She needs us to think of those years not out of wine-lit remembrance (’70s nostalgia is so ’90s, anyway) but because it was the AOR era—when folks who could lay an hour of good songs end to end, without any grand vision, were the kings and queens of the world (okay, that explains the Henley and Nicks affinities, too). Sheryl is the last of the 60-Minute Women, and she never stops pointing at the moment when that meant everything. The opener, “Steve McQueen,” understands rock allusion (as opposed to hip-hop sampling) perfectly: She may be name-checking the vacant, relentless leading man who zenithed in the ’70s, but the “whoot-whoo” holler makes us think of a different Steve singing “Take the Money and Run,” which brings us back around to The Getaway and every other ’70s axiom about extended motion and easy appeal, about the joy of getting rich to the sound of cruising down the middle of the road.

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Glamour Shots

Sappy but thrilling, Shelby Lynne’s “Killin’ Kind” was nearly lush enough to wipe the bad memory of Bridget Jones’s Diary right off your brainpan when the film’s closing credits finally rolled. The song is an all-hook-and-no-filler labor of lust, recalling the sophisticated make-out music that Elvis Costello seemed for a while to be zeroing in on around the time of Imperial Bedroom—and that Aimee Mann keeps shooting blanks at. It’s an effortlessly complex pop tune, seriously sensual, and, best of all, built to sound great on the radio.

All of which also applies to Lynne herself, the hot and bothered Southern charmer whose biography resembles the plot of a Faulkner novel, complete with a tragically homicidal dad, a teenage marriage quickly abandoned, and a series of record labels that couldn’t really give a shit. OK, that last item isn’t especially Faulknerian. But it is an important part of the Shelby story: Last year’s Grammy-certified breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne, made the singer a “best new artist” after five barely noticed albums and nine years of Nashville tough-luck-sweetie. Now, with God as her witness, she’ll never go hungry from industry neglect again!

No, really. Just check the cover of Lynne’s latest, Love, Shelby, for all the salacious, unit-shifting details. There she is, tightly undone in tank top and blue-jean cutoffs, conveniently positioned in front of a mirror and letting it all, or at least some of it, hang out. The LP’s title is written in lipstick, as if the disc were a mash note to you, CD buyer, her one and only true love. And PS: Don’t you just hate that bitch Sheryl Crow?

Judging from the album art (which only gets prettier on the inside), Shelby could be Britney’s horny older sister, an association reinforced by the fact that release dates for each diva’s new disc are just a week apart. Coincidence? I think not. On the strength of the decidedly rawkist “Life Is Bad” and a shared producer (Bill Bottrell), I Am Shelby Lynne garnered the singer a few misguided comparisons to Crow, whose allegiance to Stonesian swagger makes Lynne’s Dustyisms seem positively subtle. The controlled burn of hype about Lynne converged on the singer’s sultry badass-ness, her cruel mouth, her jealous voice, and just how good she looked in those black leather pants. It was enough to make you wish the Island records publicity squad had been on the case back when K.T. Oslin and Carlene Carter were making their best records, since they clearly know what it takes to move a little product around here.

And now so does Lynne. Gone are the forays into Western swing that marked earlier efforts—back in the mid ’90s, she cowrote the second best song called “Swingtown” ever—and mostly gone are the torch-song touches that gave I Am Shelby Lynne its sharpest tunes and raw emotional punch. Now, with Alanis’s helmsman Glen Ballard twiddling the knobs, Shelby’s all about the radio-ready rock’n’soul—which, of course, offers plenty of aural pleasures too.

Love, Shelby opens with “Trust Me,” an edgy little kiss on the cheek that comes with a snaky verse section and a bracing, full-frontal chorus: “I’m your father/I’m your mother . . . ” Lynne proclaims with Melissa Etheridge-like bravado but Prince-like inscrutability. ” . . . Together we’re the perfect picture.” Family portraits frame the album, which closes with a reading of John Lennon’s “Mother” that forgoes the primal scream treatment Lynne gives the song in concert in favor of Al Green altar-call redemption. It’s a revelation, all right—when they were just kids, Lynne and her sister Allison watched as their father murdered their mother and then turned the gun on himself—but the singer’s subtlety during the verses is the most powerful thing about it. The track practically oozes forgiveness.

Between those heavy-duty bookends, however, is mostly all manner of shiny, happy pop—at least compared to the heavy-breathing angst that made up much of the great I Am. The effervescent “Bend”—an Off the Wall-style thriller, complete with irresistibly syncopated rhythm, a swoon-worthy string section, and Shelby’s most disposable soulful yelp ever—could even have jump-started Michael Jackson’s comeback, if he’d only been smart enough to buy the copyright. “Tarpoleon Napoleon” keeps it in the family, a tribute to Dad that rekindles I Am‘s bluesy atmospherics to lightweight but totally charming effect. And “Killin’ Kind” makes a triumphant return, floating high above the proceedings like an overstuffed helium balloon headed for the stratosphere, nearly absurd in its regal, classic pop elegance.

Missing in action, though, is the much discussed “Star Broker”—a/k/a “Star Fucker” (and not to be confused with the Stones’ similarly pissed “Star Star”)—a rocked-out and stridently anti-industry screed that, lyrically anyway, would warrant comparisons to Pavement’s “Fame Throwa,” Spoon’s “Lafitte Don’t Fail Me Now,” and Graham Parker’s “Mercury Poisoning”—except that Shelby refuses to name names. Cranky fans disenchanted with the new LP’s carefully modulated AC vibe, however, are referred to their nearest Napster clone, where the caustic track is available for immediate download. It’s definitely worth the bandwidth.

But even if “Star Broker” had made the final cut, the record’s best rocker would still be “Jesus on a Greyhound,” a shaggy savior tale whose title is also the punch line. A simmering, organ-fueled anthem, the track is 90 percent Springsteen reach and 10 percent Mellencamp grasp, so much so that you keep waiting for Shelby to sing about not forgetting from where it is that she comes from. Of course, that never happens. Because Shelby Lynne’s not gonna forget, ever.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Kitties Rule, Boys Drool

“Here and Now” in 1994 was Letters to Cleo’s only MTV and radio hit, with lead yelper Kay Hanley’s rapid-fire trademark chorus “Thecomfortofaknowledgeofariseabovethesky/ couldneverparallelthechallengeofanacquisitioninthe . . . here and now” creating a lasting vocal memory to this very day.

Unfortunately, the MTV video image of pigtailed Hanley zooming up and back on some wack tractor rig must’ve annoyed as many people as it amused. LTC’s second album, Wholesale Meats and Fish, tanked their commercial career, and a horrible record deal consigned their third album, Go!, to oblivion and the band to can’t-get-off-the-label sub-Antarctica, where they eventually packed it in around late 2000. It’s an easy guess that no one in underappreciated, underpromoted LTC ever made a cent over rent money in the band’s 10 years.

Jump to 2001: Every time Rachael Leigh Cook opens her singing pipes in the wonderful, wacky Josie and the Pussycats movie, my favorite singer-no-one-ever-heard-of Kay Hanley’s propulsive, driving vocals shoot the whole damn soundtrack so far into newwavehardrock outer-space heaven that no one’s ever going to find it. I swear I can almost hear Kay yelling, “I’m gettin’ paid! I’m gettin’ paid! I’m gettin’ paid!” in all the margins. (And yeah, she even covers “Money” with the spoken intro, “This ‘un’s for all you SHOPPERS!”) And you think, man, there are happy endings and poetic justices in this world. I printed off all 40 Josie customer reviews from Amazon.com, and 19 of them mention Hanley or Letters to Cleo, pretty amazing considering the act sold only 400-500K albums in their entire career. (Tho that’s probably four or five times as many as, say, the Muffs).

Oh yeah. Josie and the Pussycats is the best album you’re gonna hear all year. Buy it or be forever left waiting ticketless at the clue-bus station. See the movie twice or be turned into a frog, or an extra from Eddie and the Cruisers. (Your call—I only run the world cuz I’m the king, and those are the rules cuz I said so. Though no one is the Boss of Me to a cat.)

The kickass guitar and bass on the 11 Josie cuts (eight originals, the theme, two blast-furnace covers) are supposedly handled by geek-boy Matthew Sweet, how about that? The guitar has that heavy, slightly metallic tinge like 1977 Teenage Head or somebody; really works for me. The drummer is just atomic—total balls to the wall. And Kay’s vocals, recorded properly for the first time (= big budget and big-time producer/engineer) are the megaton bomb. On two or three cuts, she ends with a “yeoooooooWW!” just like those early Muffs things. Funny—she had a baby right before the soundtrack gig. Maybe puttin’ on some weight gave her extra vocal heft. (That’s what latter-day Debbie Harry swears by, anyway. Fat = phat, or something.)

Eleven cuts; seven better than excellent, including two great hard rock-pop songs written by Beastie Boy (Counting Crow, whatever) Adam Duritz and a terrific pop song written by the Fountains of Wayne guy who wrote “That Thing You Do!,” Adam Schlesinger—who in fact also produces the last six Josie tracks, following Babyface’s opening five. Plus, amazingly, the best cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s ’50s tune “Real Wild Child” ever cut. The songs average well under three minutes each, very Green Day/Blink 182 in their no-frills no-solos tautness.

Kay Hanley actually re-creates that “brand new” sense of blow-up pop of the great early new wave records. Even Green Day and Blink 182 at their most popular never got there, partly because their singers aren’t in the same league. I recall Hanley’s press explanation of the soundtrack’s evolution being “The music started out very punk rock, then as it was rewritten and rewritten it got totally new wave, Go-Go’s.” Off the rails—if you wanna use velocity, bpm, and launch distance as the yardstick—Joan Jett at her best (“Bad Reputation”) might’ve been one-tenth this catchy and hard-rocking in her wildest dreams (she didn’t have the songs). Any other late-’70s/early-’80s femme-vocal new wave act? Not even close enough to the same universe. (Somewhere, the Runaways will watch the movie on a time-travel monitor and go, “Aw, fuck! I knew it was a mistake to let that cretin Kim Fowley write the songs!”)

I remember when LTCleo showed up unexpectedly in 1999’s Ten Things I Hate About You, in a club scene. I went, “Wow! Jeez—that’s Kay Hanley! But who are those dorks?” (It was Letters to Cleo in really bad late-’90s alterna-clothing.) But they were doing Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” I think. And Kay used to put on a Cheap Trick T-shirt in the early ’90s for important Boston gigs, ’cause it “put her in the mood.” I totally gotta respect that kind of gestalt insight. Y’know, any trendy twit can like the Buzzcocks or Descendents. To zone in on something that was popular—now, there’s a Def Leppard move.

The thing that tipped me off at ground zero on how good the Josie soundtrack might be was back when I was digging for info on the Generation O! (Saturday-morning WB-channel cartoon that had nine to 11 LTCleo songs specially written and recorded for it last fall) promo kit CD—the last batch of stuff the group did before giving up and disbanding (Hanley needed the time to be a proper mom, i.e., no touring). The cartoon’s lead character is an eight-year-old girl who’s a big rock star, and her song titles = the names of the episodes, conveniently enough. (The promo CD has just three songs, though. Time to troll Google.com for a CD-R of all the tunes . . .)

Then, during spring break this year, MTV was running (and rerunning and rerunning) this 30-minute show, a little like Say What? Karaoke, with the Josie and the Pussycats actresses as judges, rating four wannabe-J&TP girl trios (for some sort of spring break prize, plane tickets or hotel rooms or plain old drinking $$$): First round on clothes (to send one trio home) (all the clothes sucked if you asked me), then on an “interview” (to send another packing and leave two). The two “finalist” groups would then compete at a one-minute lip sync, with real instruments, of one of the songs from the movie. And wow, it was an awesome, seriously great song.

“3 Small Words” is the title. “Punk rock prom queen, brown paper magazine, hotter than you’ve ever seen, everywhere and in between/I’m a 10-ticket thrill ride, don’t you wanna come inside. . . . Three small words and five long days, for all your lies to come undone/Those three small words are gonna make you pay, ’cause you can’t see that I’m the one.” The lyrics I can’t understand are where Kay Hanley rips off fast lines kinda like in “Here and Now.” No other girl in the world has her way of biting off words a little ahead of the beat. She almost sounds giddy. It’s better than any LTC song ever; just kicks megabutt.

The movie itself is a funny and rocking caffeine launchpad—a bit like that nutty Get Smart episode where a hit alien rock band were pawns of an evil plot to take over the free world. Except in Josie it’s just America that’s being mind-controlled. Sublimely moronic: Record company attempts to brainwash the youth via subliminal messages on the unsuspecting hick-town Pussycats’ debut album!

The real Josie album was #16 for sales the week the movie came out—not amazing, but pretty good considering the movie did only a mediocre $5M gross its first week. But the flick will certainly have a huge run on VH1 in the infinite future, judging by That Thing You Do!, which doesn’t have one-sixth the soundtrack, not to mention Tara Reid (she’s da drummer)’s lower-than-low-cut hip-huggers. (She’s got such skinny hips it’s ridiculous—a workhorse for jeans modeling. Keepin’ it in the family, as the homeguys say. “I’m Carson Daly, and I’m gettin’ married to the drummer of Josie and the Pussycats, slipping down today to #9 . . . “) Those J&TP clothes are pretty wicked cool, too. ’70’s retro is usually lame, but this stuff is timeless. Tho I dunno about the stupid cat tails.

At Target I noticed a Josie clothes display (for this month at least) right next to the Powerpuff Girls and 2 Girls sections: Columbus, I think we got a shipload of 12-year-old girls networking to form new-century rock bands. And since slacker grunge boys and worse put guitar rock into the DOA zone, maybe this is a flicker of opportunity to revive it the right way.

Hey—I wonder what Britney Spears will think of the movie? Maybe it will inspire (or speed up) her eventual move to go “rock.” (Remember: She originally thought Jive was gonna want her to do “Sheryl Crow-type stuff,” ow ow ow.) The Josie Web site links to the company that makes the band’s nifty white guitar—a “snow leopard” model. Maybe Britney will be playing one next year, ha ha. I can just see her absentmindedly prop-strumming, like Mick Jagger in 1978.

And maybe now they’ll finally make an Archies movie someday, so Betty and Veronica can get their props! I nominate Kay Hanley as lead singer for that one, too.

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Abstract Expressivism

Here’s what intrigues me about Shelby Lynne, the country singer whose new album has been enjoying the sort of blanket media salivation only Dave Eggers can truly appreciate. The Lynne of all the feature stories is basically Jerry Lee Lewis. She grew up in rural Alabama, her dad shot her mom and then killed himself in front of her and her sister; she’s a shitkicker who drinks way too much, gets dropped from record labels for rude remarks, and shoots a lousy game of pool. The Lynne I hear on the CD is at least as much Soul II Soul: retro sentiments floated into slightly dated loops by Bill Bottrell, who oversaw the first Sheryl Crow album.

Don’t misunderstand. I Am Shelby Lynne is a standout, starting with the singer: Reared on easy-listening country, she spent years smiling in the studio then getting wasted on James Brown, before realizing at 30 that her foul mood the next morning was the best thing she had going for her. Track by track, which is how they convince, the arrangements are equally grown-up, if brighter. “Your Lies” chases the monaural intensity John Lennon achieved on “Gimme Some Truth,” but it’s been dunked into a cup of Memphis Strings. “Leavin’ ” and “Gotta Get Back” earn all those Dusty Springfield comparisons, then “Life Is Bad” stomps like Little Feat. The McGarrigles would have been proud to write the French couplet in the autobiographical “Where I’m From.” Lynne is open to r&b, particularly the smooth grit of Hi Records soul, on “Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Dreamsome.” The torchlight in “Black Light Blue” shines like Nina Simone.

Still, if the range of reference marks Lynne’s hard-won liberation from cookie-cutter Nashville, there’s a different sort of plasticity to this sound, which may explain why it broke not in the heartland or on VH1, but the U.K., where the album came out many months ago. In England recently, I noticed I Am Shelby Lynne sounding perfect at moderate volume at a Leeds HMV and making sense on a Virgin Airlines channel next to Everything but the Girl. Not to discount Lynne’s guitar, but with much of the music overdubbed by Bottrell, the vibe of the virtual studio overwhelms the feeling of any particular instrument. More so than in standard country, actually, where one hears real musicians even if they’re just session workers who always play exactly the same way.

Bottrell’s production is as warm as it can be under the circumstances, the textures chosen by a monster music fan with great taste. Yet the sense of abstraction remains, and maybe isn’t meant to be overcome, whereas overcoming abstraction is precisely the drama that undergirds D’Angelo’s new album—which is why he’ll strip naked to get there. Maybe the liberal fantasy being promoted is that the distinction doesn’t matter, that soul is soul no matter how you package it, and that releasing country attitudes into the world of sophisticated rock is adventure enough, the equivalent of fixing a melody to some drum’n’bass. Any doubts raised by the sound are assuaged by the biography.

It’s only the latest role Lynne has stepped into. As a teenager, she made her first album under the supervision of Nashville legend Billy Sherrill. “It’s a record by a little-bitty, green, eager singer who’s desperate to please,” she told Uncut‘s Nigel Williamson. Her second album she dismisses as crap commercial country. Her third at least tanked on her own clueless terms. “It’s soft pop. That was my rebellion.” Her fifth had “way too much country schlock” again. Her fourth, and the old one she’s fondest of, 1993’s Temptation, sought to re-create big-band Western swing.

More than she’ll acknowledge, Lynne has chosen to hide behind these mirrors, concealing a healthy portion of what drives her. This new album comes closer; for the first time, she wrote or cowrote all the songs, and she confronts her bitterness on the centerpiece, “Why Can’t You Be?” Or anyway, the centerpiece she let go of: Profiling her in Spin, Mark Schone discovered that she’d excised her writerly breakthrough, “The Sky Is Purple,” about her family tragedy. However emotional, the remaining songs are couched in euphemism, just as the tracks are expert pastiches. That all these facets don’t fit adds an irresolution that honors the old-school pop the young Lynne lived for. It also serves the postrock, postconfessional intimacy that makes her so contemporary.

I’ve always preferred Sheryl Crow’s second album, where she winged it on her own, and am crossing my fingers that Lynne finds the same hubris. In Austin, at South by Southwest, her guitars-and-keyboard band ripped like Dylan and the Hawks, a great sign. Lynne, though friendly in a borderline sarcastic way, already seemed distanced from her current material, like she needed new stuff to match where her sound was heading. Time for another transformation. In 1991, Patrick Carr saw her live, supporting a far worse album but driving an assemblage she called the Turbans of Soul. He thought he glimpsed a female Delbert McClinton: “raucous, red-blooded country-rhythm-and-blues.” That performer mightn’t have won the buzz Lynne has garnered for her digital question mark. But she’s still there. She’s made her finest record yet. And we haven’t heard the half of her.



Shelby Lynne plays the Bowery Ballroom April 10.