One of the reasons alt-country became so popular in the late '90s was that a lot of modern-rock fans grew tired of arcane, poetic love songs that were essentially about nothing. When Bottle Rockets howled about thousand-dollar cars, that was a relatable gripe, and now when Mars Arizona co-leaders Nicole Storto and Paul Knowles sing about a roaming, lonely man on "Streets Of Milwaukee," their sketch's directness is lacking in other corners of the pop universe. Storto and Knowles describe a motley assortment of broken people on Mars Arizona's second LP, All Over The Road, aided by unfussy guitar-picking and straight-ahead rhythms. The Bay Area duo has some dilettantish traits: When they cover the Harlan Howard/Buck Owens classic "Excuse Me, I Think I've Got A Heartache," they do so with a somber reverence that's more tourist than resident. But Mars Arizona is also capable of forging its own space in Americana, via songs like the casual rocker "He Broke Your Heart," where sweetly buzzing guitar counteracts Knowles' bitter words.

If Mars Arizona stays the course, the band could rival its down-the-coast neighbor Limbeck, which over five years and three LPs has become one of the brightest hopes for roots-rock. After some false starts early in its career, Limbeck finds a comfortable sound and voice on Let Me Come Home, which follows a twangy pop road previously traveled by The Flying Burrito Brothers, Tom Petty, and Old 97's. The easy jangle and classic-rock dynamics of songs like "Everyone's In The Parking Lot" and "Usually Deluded" match Robb MacLean's clear lyrics about self-doubt and hanging out. MacLean keeps it simple and positive, as on "'91 Honda" (about what he's gotten done in his car) and "Home (Is Where The Van Is)" (a touring-band anthem that makes the road sound like paradise). He's so affable that when Let Me Come Home reaches the brisk "Names For Dogs"—about a politically naïve young man who's convinced that nothing really changes from generation to generation—it's impossible to know whether MacLean is singing as himself, or criticizing his peers. But he sure doesn't sound mean enough for the latter.

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