I've wrestled with my feelings toward country music as a genre for a long time. I really had no opinion at all 'til high school or so, when the sheer bombardment of pop-country overwhelmed me and turned me off of the genre completely. I'm still working my way back from that, I think, and I'm making some progress, although I can't imagine I'll ever be a pop-country fan. Anyway, I've tried to figure out how to best define what country I do like, and it's occurred to me that that means going back to the music's roots.
At its heart, country is folk music. That's where it came from, initially, mutated out of folk songs brought over to America by immigrants from all over, but mostly from Europe and especially from the British Isles -- listen to some good, old country and a Pogues song or two back-to-back, and you'll see what I mean. Folk music, of whatever kind, speaks to the heart, without any pretensions or grandiose themes; it's just the voice of the people, singing the things most folks feel most of the time but don't sing about. It's "everyman" music, music everybody can relate to. That's the feeling behind the blues, and it's the feeling behind some country, I think (not entirely accidentally, the kinds I seem to like). I'm drawn to some country music, while some repulses me utterly -- I can't help but rumble along with Johnny Cash, but I'll gladly turn off Garth Brooks the first chance I get, and the Dixie Chicks just don't do it for me.
The kind of country that touches me is the type I mentioned above, the "everyman" kind. I'm talking about country of the cry-into-your-beer, lonely-but-it'll-be-alright variety, the kind that wouldn't sound out of place in places where the jukebox is muted and all you can hear besides the music is low voices and the click of the pool cue against the ball. Paved Country's Deconstructing Paradise offers up plenty of that kind of country. I think it's singer Marjie Alonso's influence, mostly -- going back to the blues comparison, she sings every song almost like she's singing the blues. On "Surprise Surprise," the quiet weariness in her voice undercuts the sarcasm that other singers might impart to the song, and on "Hush Hush," the spare, folk-y last song on the album, her soft vocals make me want to cry. Alonso sounds like she's on the very edge of giving up completely, like someone who's been beaten down by life so many times that she has a hard time getting back up again.
Of course, Alonso's not the only person on here, and the rest of the band does a fine job, as well, the musicians playing their parts just about perfectly while letting the beautiful, heartfelt harmony vocals take the spotlight. There are even a few uptempo burners, like "Too Much Fun," the righteously angry "Step Away From The Woman," or the very Indigo Girls-ish "Peace Of Mind," and all of those are pretty darn good on their own. It's the slower songs, though, like "Surprise Surprise" and "Hush Hush," above, the delicate "Move Mountains," and the opener, "I Wish Our Love Was New," that really catch my attention. I think those are the sort of songs that Paved Country are best at, and they prove me right by taking on a low-down, melancholy Merle Haggard song, "What Am I Gonna Do," and making it completely real to them, too. When Alonso and fellow vocalist Sarah Mendelsohn sing about heartbreak, loss, and trying to make things work, it sounds as if they've seen miles and miles of that road themselves, and that's the key to country, in my opinion: just from hearing the songs, you know that they're both everyday people, like you and me. (JH)
(Paved Country -- P.O. Box 442134, West Somerville, MA. 02144; http://www.pavedcountry.com/)
Giving Birth To A Stone
I can see why Tool enlisted Peach's Justin Chancellor to fill Paul D'Amour's bass position: Peach sounds a lot like Tool, almost annoyingly so. I'd like to think that Justin knew what was in store for him...perhaps he was privy to some animosity within Tool and knew that they'd be looking for a bassist in the future, so he honed his chops in what was for all intents and purposes a Tool cover band. The only real difference is that the lyrics here are a whole lot lamer and pseudo-goth-dirgey than Maynard's. Then end of the first track, "Spasm" even sounds like it's a direct recording of the end of "Cold And Ugly." When they try to veer into non-Tool territory, it ends up being maudlin, as in "Catfood," or sounding like an attempt at aping God Lives Underwater or Stabbing Westward ("Velvet"). Chancellor does the lead vocal on "Dougal," and from what I can tell, he could sound better than the group's primary vocalist, but it's hard to say for sure, because the vocals are buried in phase effects. I think things are okay the way they are now: Justin with Tool (an infinitely better showcase of his talents), and Peach nonexistent. (MHo)
(Vile Beat Records -- P.O. Box 42462, Washington, DC. 20015; http://www.beatville.com/)