Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Because it's voiced in a common tongue, the trad rock subgenre misleadingly dubbed alt-country is the kind of thing talent scouts go for. Pedal steel, manageable beats, white guys drawling literal lyrics--these are things the music business understands, and if a band like Son Volt gets hip for a minute, why not sign some vaguely similar unit up? Like Carolina's Whiskeytown, say? Due mostly to Ryan Adams's reliable tunecraft and soft-edged vocals, the band's Strangers Almanac (Outpost) is the most commercially credible of the crop. Properly promoted in a heartland not altogether converted to synthesizers, straight-ahead hitsville wannabes like 16 Days or soulful weepers like Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight could liven up the pop melange with an old new flavor--bland yet catchy, an effective combination.

Since I prefer my music savory, however, I'll be rooting stubbornly for Festus, Missouri's Bottle Rockets. Guitar-driven longhairs who trace their musical lineage to the Ramones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they demonstrate their country affinities with descriptive lyrics that respect everyday life, like the used-car memoir Indianapolis or the bruised-relationship tale Smokin' 100's Alone. Chief writer-singer Brian Henneman commands notable bite in both capacities on their third and most hopefully radio-ready album, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic).

Now recording for his fourth company, country veteran John Anderson has made a practice of revving up the effort on his label debut, and on Takin' the Country Back (Mercury) he outdoes himself. Leading off with Somebody Slap Me, a paean to the perfect woman ("beauty school diploma" "does her own plumbing"), Anderson successfully skirts Nashville sentimentality for an entire album. This doesn't mean he fails to deliver his trademark warmth--just that he doesn't neglect his trademark humor.

Playboy, Aug. 1997

July 1997 Sept. 1997