But moe. isn't trying to take over the world with heady themes -- the closing "Opium" is an ode to you-know-what. On "Dither," the guys in moe. prove themselves to be capable tunesmiths, every bit as good a bright, eclectic pop group as accomplished improvisers. Jam fans, take notice in this time of darkness.
By Brian Millikin
Greg Hawks & the Tremblers
Unlike almost every other genre of popular music, country and western remains the vanguard of blatant traditionalism.
True, neoclassic rockers like Creed might sell a ton of records, and purists like Wynton Marsalis might dominate Ken Burns' recent "Jazz" miniseries, but neither camp earns much respect due to their lack of innovation.
The reverse holds true with country music, where the accolades are heaped upon the throwbacks, the vective piled upon the pop-fusion newcomers and the ultimate artistic achievement is not to surpass last year's Radiohead album, but the lonesome croon and simple poetry of Hank Williams.
Add Greg Hawks to the list of pretenders to the throne, as he delivers no-frills country without pretension on Fool's Paradise.
In true old-school fashion, Hawks thoroughly covers the stereotypical terrain: women troubles, job troubles, family troubles and the drinking troubles caused by the first three.
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Emotions vary from depression to intoxication to inertia, a one-note song that Hawks nonetheless sings pretty damn well, especially on the heartbreaker "Since You've Been Gone."
But that brings us back to that concept of ideal country music as completely unpretentious and pure.
After a few spins of Fool's Paradise, you'll start to wonder how "pretension" ever became a dirty word in music circles, because Hawks surely could use a jolt of ambition or artistic reach to dig himself out of his mid-tempo rut.
Hawks seems so damned reverent and duty-bound not to taint his dozen pristine replicas of old-time country that he can't even spare a few minutes for shit-kickin' or honky-tonkin', let alone time to carve out his own identity.
Like a room-temperature can of Coors, the ingredients might be as pure as a Rocky Mountain stream, but it still goes down like swill.
Hell, maybe Hawks should just stick to his day job, because when he makes a stab at irreverence with the "warm gray morning pissing rain" tale of "Halfway," his deep, punch-drunk delivery makes him come off like Jimmy Buffet without a decent punchline.
If country music really needed someone to carry the torch of its forefathers, Hawks would be the man for the job. But before those six-string cowboy tales become too stale, what it really needs is a little more fire and imagination than Hawks can provide.
By Josh Love
2 1/2 Stars
While much of country music has crossed over into the upbeat pop-rock genre, Dolly Parton keeps bluegrass and her Smoky Mountain roots as her top priorities on her latest release.
Little Sparrow is Parton's second bluegrass album, following up The Grass Is Blue. The singer describes the album as "blue mountain music;" it reflects country music's roots in the Appalachian Mountains.
This time around, Parton applies her penchant for bluegrass to several covers. Collective Soul's "Shine," a guitar-heavy rock hit, becomes a mandolin, fiddle and banjo creation. If I had not heard Collective Soul's version, Parton's might have had the makings of a decent country song. But alas, she misses the rock 'n' roll kick of the original.
In an effort to bring Smoky Mountain folklore into her album, she wrote "Mountain Angel." The downtempo song tells the story of a simple, innocent mountain girl who falls in love, gets hurt, and then, out of pain, turns into a witch.
Parton redid Sinatra's classic "I Get a Kick Out of You" because it was one of her husband Carl's favorites. But the bluegrass version of this song just doesn't cut it; it's basically just a bad idea to take a song by "ol' blue eyes" and try to change it. Parton attempts to imitate the dramatic sounds of Sinatra's voice but fails. Luckily, the song is short.
Parton slows down the originally fast-paced "The Sweet By and By," an old mountain hymn. The singer's voice could easily take a listener to a country church. The lyrics explain the hope for a reunion of believers in Heaven where God has prepared a beautiful shore of joy.
"Down From Dover," an older Parton original, is the story of a pregnant teen and the struggles that she faces with family, friends and an absent father. The strongly emotional song is one of the album's best.
In the title track, "Little Sparrow," Parton harmonizes beautifully with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. The song is also known as "Fair and Tender Maidens," but Parton chose to rename it because she felt "Little Sparrow" represents herself -- fragile.
The lyrics warn young women to be cautious of men and not to trust them because they will eventually "crush you like a sparrow, leaving you to never mend."
Despite Parton's lack of original songs on this album, her ears were certainly tuned to fit mountain bluegrass into unexpected places.
By Meredith Bullard