Album Reviews: Soul, Country, Power Pop, and More

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Various artists, Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs from the Season. A Christmas album already? Well, if presidential election season can last two years, I guess Christmas season can last three months. While it’s early yet, at any rate, I doubt we'll hear a better new holiday record this year than Christmas on the Lam, which features a motley assortment of artists from the Red House label performing seven previously unavailable songs plus five culled from previous releases. With the exception of a folky “Blue Christmas” by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, the CD eschews standards in favor of old obscurities and fresh originals, some of which don’t even reference the holiday. The Pines check in with an exquisite cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” that makes me wish they’d do a whole album of his material. John Gorka’s self-penned  “Holed Up in Mason City”—which finds him waiting with Buddy Holly’s ghost for the roads to be cleared after a two-day blizzard—ranks with his most atmospheric works. Dale Watson sings about coming home for the holidays in his own honky-tonkin’ “Christmas to Me,” where he’s backed by a band that sounds redolent of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. Also in fine form here are such artists as the Wailin’ Jennys, Suzzy Roche, and Jorma Kaukonen.  

Game Theory, The Big Shot Chronicles. Game Theory slipped right by me during their 1980s heyday but I—and anyone else who missed the boat—have a second chance to explore their catalog, thanks to a reissue series from the Omnivore label. That’s good news indeed, because the catalog is rich. Check out The Big Shot Chronicles, the group’s third full-length LP, which Mitch Easter (R.E.M.) produced. Influenced most notably by Big Star, it’s a superlative power pop collection loaded with jingle-jangle guitar, addictive melodies, and nods to psychedelic '60s rock. This reissue is even stronger than the original 12-track release, because it adds 13 demos, alternate mixes, rehearsal tapes, rough mixes, and live recordings, including nine previously unreleased tracks. Among them are fine covers of songs by some of Game Theory’s influences, including Velvet Underground (“Sweet Jane”), Roxy Music (“Re-make Re-model”), and Big Star (“Jesus Christ”). Highly recommended.

Birdtalker, Just This. If you listen carefully to this quintet’s heartfelt debut EP—and particularly if you watch their videos—you won’t be surprised to learn that their vocalists are a newlywed couple: on songs like the title cut, Zach and Dani Green appear to be singing to and about each other. The album keeps their appealing harmony vocals front and center throughout its six tracks. (“Want,” the opening number, is performed a cappella.) The well-produced outfit have a fine sense of melody and remind me a bit of the Head and the Heart. Though the album contains only six tracks, it evidences a good deal of versatility; it will be interesting to see where the group head from here. I predict a bright future for the band and—if the Greens are as in sync in life as they appear to be in music—for their marriage.

Dale Watson, Under the Influence. If you want to know where veteran country singer Dale Watson is coming from, start with this album, which finds him covering hits and obscure gems from the catalogs of many of his biggest influences. Watson is a fine vocalist who often sounds uncannily like Merle Haggard, and when he tips a hat to the Bakersfield sound with guitar- and vocal-based tunes, the results really shine. Standouts include Haggard’s “Here in Frisco” and Buck Owens’s chart-topping “Made in Japan.” Also excellent are covers of Bob Wills’s Western swing classic, “That’s What I Like about the South” and “Long Black Veil,” which Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash both recorded. Watson is less successful with more mainstream Nashville material like Mel Tillis’s “Pretty Red Wine” and Ronnie Milsap’s “Pure Love,” but those are exceptions on a mostly solid album. Put it on, grab a beer, close your eyes, and you should have no trouble imagining yourself in a packed and rocking Texas roadhouse.

Gene and Eddie and Sir Joe, True Enough: Gene and Eddie with Sir Joe at Ru-Jac. This album—most of which would fit right in on the great Stax/Volt Singles collection—is a major find for soul music fans. Gene and Eddie recorded in the early '60s for the Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label, whose roster included such acts as Arthur Conley (“Sweet Soul Music”). Unlike Conley, the duo failed to score any national hits, but you’ll scratch your head and wonder why after listening to this first-rate CD, which also includes material from Sir Joe (aka Joe Quarterman), who wrote and produced many of Gene and Eddie’s tracks. On horn-spiced numbers like “I Would Cry” and “She’s True Enough,” the duo combine doo-wop and funk influences with as much soul as Sam & Dave ever delivered. The fluid vocals of Sir Joe are just as impressive: on numbers like “Nobody Beats My Love” and “If You Give Up Your Love,” he sounds like a young Marvin Gaye.

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Jeff Burger (, a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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