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Love for God and the land

March 03, 2009|Randy Lewis, Todd Martens

Buddy and Julie Miller

"Written in Chalk"

(New West)


The word that seems to crop up with greater frequency than any other here is "goodbye." Loss and how it affects the human spirit are central in these dozen songs, most of them written by Julie and sung alternately, or occasionally together, by her and her guitarist-producer husband.

This uncommonly moving collection, only the second from the first couple of Americana music, opens with the reflective "Ellis County," written by Julie "for Momma," according to the CD's lovely booklet containing the lyrics and credits.

Buddy, in that scratchy no-nonsense voice of his, sings her lyrics of yearning for a simpler era "when all we could afford was laughter / and two mules instead of a tractor." Then comes the deeper wish to revisit a time "when I could feel the kiss of my mother / And I had all my sisters and brothers."

There's a sense of timelessness rooted in rural America, along with a stripped-down musical ambience, that makes this a worthy companion to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand," for which Buddy was part of their touring band. That connection resulted in Plant's guest spot on a delightfully squirrelly arrangement of Mel Tillis' "What You Gonna Do Leroy," recorded live in a dressing room during that tour last year.

Like Plant and Krauss, the Millers find light within the darker recesses of human experience, notably in the lusty "Gasoline and Matches" and the enigmatic character sketch "Memphis Jane." And there's real sweetness along with the sadness in "June," written by Julie on the night June Carter Cash died.

To these two, faith provides the gains that can help offset the pain that typically accompanies loss. "We don't know all the trouble we're in. . . . Jesus come and save us from our sin," Buddy sings in a duet with Patty Griffin. And "all our words are written down in chalk," he sings earlier, "out in the rain on the sidewalk." Maybe so. But the truth in them is waterproof.

-- Randy Lewis


This heritage is in good hands

Justin Townes Earle

"Midnight at the Movies"


*** 1/2

On his sophomore album, Earle has a song called "They Killed John Henry" that starts out at the folk hero's funeral and moves the celebrated tale forward. It's a gutsy move for a songwriter, essentially offering up a sequel to a slice of classic American folk literature, but Steve Earle's son clearly has the talent to carry out such ambition effortlessly.

He's fully absorbed his genetic and cultural heritage and draws upon both with great skill and dimension. "Mama's Eyes" recognizes the curse and blessing of that heritage. He walks in the large footsteps of Willie Nelson and Bob Wills in "What I Mean to You" and "Poor Fool," a couple of Texas honky-tonk swing tunes.

The title song exhibits some of his dad's and John Prine's deftness for creating and empathizing with outsider characters, while an acousticized version of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" brings the indie rock facet of his rich set of influences to the forefront. He organically forges those into an utterly distinctive voice that takes what's come before and artfully moves it forward with the power of a certain steel-driving man.

-- Randy Lewis


The present, seen through nostalgia

Wild Light

"Adult Nights"

(StarTime International/Columbia)


The debut from New Hampshire-based Wild Light opens with an irresistible slice of roots rock venom. "California on My Mind" filters San Francisco through a broken heart, and the sound -- for 2 1/2 minutes -- is quite glorious. Crisp guitars spring from a stroll into a dash, scratched vocals lend an air of frustration and a drifting harmonica provides reflection amid the obscenities.

It's a tough opener to top. But if the next 12 songs don't always provide such an immediate hook, the best make up for it with pop nuance.

Sharing a label with Peter Bjorn and John, and boasting a member who was in an early incarnation of the Arcade Fire (Timothy Kyle), Wild Light is more grounded than the background implies. If it weren't for a shiny keyboard in a number of songs, Wild Light would recall the Jayhawks at their least alt-country and most pop.

The band, working with producer Rob Schnapf, melds sunny folk-pop with a melancholic harmonic swirl and some brisk electronic atmospheres. "Call Home" builds an orchestra out of wistful keyboard tones and some well-placed rhythmic snaps, while "Heart Attack" sends its guitars into the stratosphere with a splash of otherworldly effects.

At times old-fashioned, Wild Light doesn't feel stuck in the past. There's plenty of mid-tempo despair here -- perhaps too much -- but on songs such as "Future Towns," the band is finding nostalgia in better days that might never come.

-- Todd Martens

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