Dog Days (Roadrunner)
When I interviewed the various bands for this article, I always finished off by asking them, "Do you think the potential market could become oversaturated with this type of stuff too soon?" It was specifically Blue Mountain that caused me to ask this. When I heard this album, I thought it was good, but also something I had already heard, over and over. Just judging this album on its own merits, it's a fine work; but put into the context of the whole "alternative country" scene, there's not much reason to buy this if you already own Wilco, Son Volt, and Uncle Tupelo albums. Funny thing is, I can't really knock off points for lack of originality, because they've been around just as long as those other guys (bassist Laurie Stirratt is the sister and former bandmate of Wilco bassist John Stirratt); they've just had the misfortune of getting their album out last. However, if you haven't dipped your toe into this kind of music yet, Blue Mountain makes as fine a starting point as any.
3 stars -- Lee Nichols
Trace (Warner Bros.)
If you believe that the Eagles are the best band ever because, without them, you'd have a lot more unbearable solo records from the likes of Henley, Walsh, and Frey, you might consider Missouri's Uncle Tupelo to be the worst band ever. After four brilliant albums, Uncle Tupelo imploded and the wait began for new efforts from songwriters Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. 1995 first saw Tweedy's Wilco releasing A.M. and, more recently, Farrar's Son Volt weighing in with Trace. While on A.M. -- reviewed with four stars in these pages months ago -- Tweedy and company treaded on common ground lyrically and took more chances musically, Farrar's Son Volt plays it somewhat safe musically with a combination of two-thirds acoustic guitar and one-third high-energy electric guitar. This approach was perfected on Uncle Tupelo's swan song Anodyne (recorded in Austin), and seemed fresh while cementing the band as "roots rock" gurus. Trace lacks that spontaneity and doesn't live up to Anodyne's promise because of the lyrics. While the subject matter may be more abstract than that of Tweedy and Wilco, Farrar and Son Volt flail in cliché after cliché to the point where the album sounds like one long bumper sticker. If you buy into the whole "roots rock" angle and the words don't bother you, this could be the five-star record which proves Uncle Tupelo was indeed the worst band ever. For those who thought Uncle Tupelo was one of the best bands ever, though, Trace may be little more than just a beautiful near miss.
3 1/2 stars -- Doug Jenks
Nowhere to Here (Discovery)
There came a period in the Byrds' development that the general public stopped caring about the group -- right after Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn's triumphant Sweetheart of the Rodeo in '68. After "the country album," it was slow commercial death until the end. Yet by and large, what one finds on those three or four albums that precede the group's break-up in 1972, is some of the Byrds' most interesting work; highly psychedelicized roots rock with country echoes -- more Rubber Soul than anything else. Which is precisely what's so attractive about Blue Rodeo and Nowhere to Here. There may be no pure and simple marketing scheme here, but there's enough strong roots influences and harmonies to make that seem entirely irrelevant. Ditto, perhaps, for the tag "alternative country." Either way, Blue Rodeo's singing and songwriting alliance of Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy sounds like it's travelling in lands near The Jayhawks' Mark Olson and Gary Louris, where influences matter less than the journey through our 20th-century musical heritage. With voices that beguile and songs that do the same -- and musical ability to spare -- Keelor and Cuddy have another winner on their hands. Wonder if anyone will care?
3 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
THE BOTTLE ROCKETS
The Brooklyn Side (TAG/Atlantic)
If Uncle Tupelo was for the critics, then the Bottle Rockets are for everyone. While they were no doubt the pride of Festus, Missouri, even before the Brooklyn's Side's original 1991 release on ESD, The Bottle Rockets' strength lies in their twang, digestible in Anywhere, USA -- fiddles existing alongside metallic power chords, and power chords that can sound, oddly enough, like fiddles. But while Brooklyn Side's relentless hooks, riffs, and offbeat grooves are more than enough to make this a strongly cohesive record, it's the album's lyrical wit, sarcasm, and the resulting insight that make the Bottle Rockets more than the next grabbers of "alternative country" brass ring. And within the swing of "Radar Gun," "Sunday Sports," "Pot of Gold," "Idiot's Revenge," and "Welfare Music," the Bottle Rockets capture true Americana line-by-line, and at their best, seem like they've managed to cram a couple o' tongues into their cheek. And with a record so full of simple songs, the irony is that the Bottle Rockets have made a record that's also truly deep in something timeless: plain ol' fun.
4 stars -- Andy Langer