A glance at Billboard's country chart--the Coyote Ugly soundtrack, a fixture for 90 weeks!--reminds you why the current renaissance of "traditional" country is welcome. But let's be honest. In large part, it's a nostalgia trip, powered by unexamined enthusiasm for a mythical past when our noble forebears drank corn liquor and worshipped Terrible Jehovah in a state of barefoot innocence. The music can be great--who can argue with Ralph Stanley's sepulchral moan on the now-ubiquitous O Brother soundtrack? But to fiery hell the twee imaginary world where spiritual-singing Negro children wander sun-dappled fields and honest honky hatchet-faces stomp floorboards to splinters in their enthusiasm for "real country music."
Consider, in counterpoint, Johnny Paycheck: convicted felon, drunk '70s jerkface, vessel for horrid urges, no high-lonesome yodeler and nobody's idea of an Olde Crafte carpenter of sound. If Allison Krauss, Stanley, the Peasall Sisters et al. embody a rather wishful conception of the country lifestyle, Paycheck's odes to drugs, drink and kneejerk violence cut a little closer to ugly truth. By the time '70s outlaws like Paycheck came along, the picturesque hill folk had long since abandoned the ol' Holler. The Big City's better jobs and harder drugs called, and the likes of Johnny--a demonic, imp-faced troll with a deep drawl and long criminal record--documented the cultural fallout.
"Take This Job and Shove It," Paycheck's signature and one of the biggest so-called "country" hits of all time, is actually an urban tale, a pissed-off factory laborer's rant. Likewise, most of the 22 other songs gathered on The Soul & The Edge reek of gasoline and stale beer rather than fresh-cut hay. In "Colorado Cool-Aid," a man's ear is severed from his head with a switchblade, to the amusement of his drinking pals. "11 Months and 29 Days" is a redneck knucklehead's jailhouse notes. "I'm the Only Hell (My Momma Ever Raised)" is an almost-touching account of a bad seed's remorse ("She tried to turn me on to Jesus/ But I turned on to the Devil's ways"). Compared with these unrepentant blasts, Paycheck's saccharine ballads and obligatory cautionary tales--did he ever once "(Stay Away From) The Cocaine Train"?--sound limp at best.
The Soul & The Edge is a great record, a hideous masterpiece that should be a compulsory buy for anyone interested in "real country music." It's just not too quaint, so lock up your daughters, pray for your sons, and watch yourself. Zach Dundas
"Verandi" (MP3 available at www.insound.com)
It's Iceland vs. India in the music World Cup, as the Nordic pixie teams with Bollywood composer Jolly Mukherjee on a dense, sinuous, dramatic track. Recorded before Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark, this transnational cut reiterates Bjšrk's dark side as her unmistakable vocals settle into deep drifts of cinematic strings and ambient noise. ZD
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Self-titled EP (Shifty Records)
The debut EP from this bassless NYC three-piece is the latest contribution to the raw '70s punk-rock movement The Strokes seem to be leading. Led by Karen O's seductive, sometimes squealing singing, and roughed up by lunging guitar riffs and thumping, trash-can beats, the record swaggers and sweats, begs before exploding and whispers while sneering. The often off-key EP's power lies in Miss O's conflicted, dangerous personas. Just when you think she's sweet and innocent, she tells you to swallow her spit. And just when you snap into the contagious groove of "Art Star," blaring death-metal noise blasts in. Borrowing the guitar line from "Crimson And Clover," the emotion-packed closing track "Our Time" seems to take a not-so-patriotic view on 9/11 as O belts out again and again: "It's our time/ Our time/ Our time/ ...To be hated." Jenny Tatone
Last of the Juanitas
Time's Up (Wantage USA)
There are albums you eagerly promote to your friends, albums you shove into their hands and demand they listen to immediately. And then there are albums that make you a little nervous--albums you think twice about pushing on the uninitiated, the delicate, souls not prepared for a savage test. Albums you worry might be just too goddamn heavy for general consumption. Time's Up, a 20-minute album by Portland's Last of the Juanitas, burns with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns colliding. Brooding, paranoid, scabrous and crazed, it brings the trio's long flirtations with jazz-zonked time signatures, splintered song structures and metal-on-metal volume to full flower. Buy, absorb, prize--but proselytize with care. ZD
Last of the Juanitas play Sunday, May 12, at Blackbird, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 282-9949. The Triggers, Spooky Dance Band and the Constantines also appear. 9:30 pm. $6.