Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Music in Brief

It's hard to imagine a more satisfying anthology package than Ricky Jay Plays Poker (Sony Legacy), which brings together a fistful of songs about card-playing, ranging from Bert Williams' 1914 proto-rap "Darktown Poker Club" (as well as Phil Harris' rapid-fire, jived-up 1946 version) to Saint Etienne's audio fragment "Etienne Gonna Die," which samples Jay and Joe Mantegna's dialogue from David Mamet's House Of Games. The songs are great, and largely obscure. Plus, the set comes with a thick book of liner notes by Jay, a deck of cards, and a 30-minute DVD of Jay demonstrating poker-themed card tricks and cons for a table of friends. The DVD could be better shot and more comprehensive, but it's hugely entertaining, and it's only an extra. The meat of the set is the music, which surveys American songwriters' enduring obsession with gambling parlors and risk-taking men… A

Vats of ink have been spilled by critics trying to describe what made The Band so special, but most writers overthink the matter, focusing on roots-music genealogy and mythology, and missing the effortlessness with which four Canadians and an Arkansan turned folklore into simple, hooky songs. Also missing the point? Most of the musicians involved with the tribute album Endless Highway: The Music Of The Band (Savoy). If ever a band deserved a tribute album, it's The Band, especially since it has such a deep catalog of easy-to-play, easy-to-transmute songs. But Endless Highway doesn't run to too many untraveled places. The artist lineup comes almost exclusively from the jam-band and Americana circuits, which means a lot of choogly five- and six-minute versions of songs that used to be masterfully contrite. Aside from a few highlights—My Morning Jacket's sprawling take on "It Makes No Difference," Death Cab For Cutie's droney "Rockin' Chair"—this is an album full of missed opportunities… C

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About two-thirds of Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter's third album, Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls Of The Soul (Barsuk), consists of serviceable-but-rote neo-roots music from the theatrical and spooky end of the alt-country spectrum. But the record's best songs—the Janis Joplin-like boozer "LLL," the gasping "The Air Is Thin," and the rumbling, sinister "I Like The Sound"—convert deep twang and whispery voices into meaningful rock drama. If Sykes continues to court the trio's eclectic sound and jammy vibe, she might soon live up to all the praise she's been getting… B-

Tom Brosseau had the bad luck to begin his singer-songwriter career around the same time as M. Ward, a similarly early-20th-century-minded troubadour with a broader style and better pop sense. But while Ward can write indelible choruses, he can't match Brosseau's verses, which tell stories of wanderers and loners with the clarity of a great novelist. Brosseau's Grand Forks (Loveless) comes on the heels of two vault-clearing 2006 compilations, and it sounds in some ways like his first real album, complete with full-band accompaniment and guest shots by the likes of John Doe. And it's scattered with back-to-basics folk songs like "Dark And Shiny Gun," a vivid saloon ballad that Johnny Cash should've lived long enough to cover… B+

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Country-rock veteran Bill Kirchen—one of Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen 30 years ago—sticks with straight-up western swing and piano-backed weepies on his solo album Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods (Proper American), and though most slavishly old-fashioned music tends to sound a little pointless, Kirchen's voice is so clear and his good humor so infectious that he makes corny two-steppers like "Get A Little Goner" work. Even better: his cover of Arthur Alexander's "If It's Really Got To Be This Way," which returns to the classic "countrypolitian" sound of the late '60s, when C&W radio had class. B

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