1) New Pornographers, "Mass Romantic" (Mint)
Put five guys from Vancouver in a band that would rather be Oasis or even the Small Faces in their arty period -- or the Beach Boys topping "Good Vibrations" or, why not, the Beatles -- together with someone doing a good imitation of Phil Spector crinkling up tinfoil, bring in Bloodshot country singer Neko Case and watch a smile spread through the room, and then watch it soar into the sky like a balloon, and Case fly through the air like Supergirl, or anyway Helen Slater, who will do. "The song, the song, the song that's shaking me," Case warbles off her feet in "Letter From an Occupant"; I couldn't make out the next line, but the boys' "woo-woo-woo-woo, wee-ooo's" were clear as day. Then came the opening shots of "To Wild Homes," and I found myself applauding. In the car, in the fast lane. From last year, and for good.
2) Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Two Steps From the Blues" (MCA)
From 1961: the first full album by the strangest-looking and most original postwar blues stylist -- a man whose sense of tragedy was as carefully cut as his sharkskin suits. Never too much drape, never a fold showing, with so many different threads running through the material the result is a glow, the glow of despair and loss at twilight, be it the gentle "Lead Me On" or the horrifying "St. James Infirmary." On the front: Mr. Bland himself, jacket slung over his shoulder like Frank Sinatra, mounting the two steps that will take him inside the blue-paneled building where, you can bet, he will inquire about his royalties. "What royalties?" Duke Records president Don Robey will ask him. "I don't see your name on any of those songs."
3) David Rakoff, "Fraud" (Doubleday)
Rakoff's embarrassed stories are mostly funnier and creepier on "This American Life" than on the page, where you can begin to think he went begging for his Wrong Guy for the Wrong Job assignments. Thus the center of gravity here is not Rakoff at all, not as our guide to the absurdities of contemporary speech and mores or weird cool person. "The Best Medicine" is a report on the Sixth Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., where the self-congratulation of the event -- Eric Idle: "They are the finest people in the world, aren't they, comedians?" -- leads Rakoff to question the legitimacy of his own birth: "Yes, not like those pushy, conceited Doctors Without Borders, and don't get me started about that bitch Daw Aung San Suu Kyi." "There's really no arguing with Preston Sturges," he says, referring to "Sullivan's Travels" and its insistence that all people want out of art is something to take their mind off life, "but it bears repeating that even though laughter may well be 'the best medicine,' it is not, in point of fact, actual medicine." This won't win Rakoff cheers from the positive-attitude crowd, but he's already had cancer.
4) Katastrophywife, "Amusia" (EFA/Almafame)
In 1990 Babes in Toyland of Minneapolis -- singer and guitarist Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero, bassist Michelle Leon -- released "Spanking Machine" on the local Twin/Tone label. It was as free and fierce a sound as anyone found in the post-Sex Pistols era -- and there was nothing like Bjelland screaming, as an effect, as an event, an event taking place in one of her songs or off the record, in the street outside wherever the group was playing that night. Neal Karlen's "Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band" chronicled what happened next: a lifeless, overworried album on a major label, a "triumphant spot on the 1993 Lollapalooza, the most prestigious tour in rock and roll," and that was that. Now Bjelland has a new trio with at least three puns in its name, and how her head stays on her body I have no idea.
5) Oxford American No. 40
The bad news is that the passionately edited bimonthly literary magazine from Oxford, Miss., is going quarterly. It's not a shock. To take nothing away from Roy Blount Jr. and his "Gone Off up North," when the hardest bite in your pages comes from your humor columnist, too many other people are biting their tongues. The good news is that the Fifth Annual Music Issue is probably the best so far. Witness after witness steps forth to testify in favor of an ignored, forgotten, misjudged or misunderstood pioneer, obscure genius or contemporary prophet without honor. From James Hughes on the Gants ("Mississippi's Beatles") to Robert Bowman on Linda Lyndell ("The Woman Who Saved Stax") to Bill Friskics-Warren on Bill Nettles ("protorockabilly" from the late '30s) to Billy Bob Thornton on his new album to David Eason on country singer-songwriter Steve Young and more, more, more, the reader can't wait to hear what the writers are talking about, and the 22-track CD included with the magazine gives you instant access to crushing disappointment. Mississippi's Beatles are really Mississippi's Beau Brummels (but odd enough to send me to the record store in search of "Road Runner! The Best of the Gants" on Sundazed). Billy Bob Thornton's "Ring of Fire" is absolutely terrible. Steve Young is still a bore. In other words, the CD will save you the money the writers had almost convinced you to spend. Not that they would take a single word back: These are fans ripping off their shirts to show you who's really tattooed on their chests. They don't care if you agree with them, they just want you to look, and why not? Why shouldn't the writing be more convincing than the music? But then you come across something as emotionally tricky, as musicologically intense, as Tom Piazza's "A Light Went on and He Sang," on country blues founder Charley Patton, and even if you've been listening to Patton for years, you know that when you close the magazine you'll cue up a disc and hear the man for the first time.
6) Gin Blossoms, "Found Out About You," from "New Miserable Experience" (A&M, 1992)
"Yes, the Blossoms are still broken up," reads the Unofficial Gin Blossoms Home Page, "but you can follow the former members in their new efforts ..." Do they hold up so well because singer Robin Wilson still sounds not only miserable, but as if nothing could possibly have changed, including the world? Or because songwriter Doug Hopkins included his 1993 suicide in his 1992 songs?
7) Clash, "Take It or Leave It" (Wise/P.F.P. vinyl bootleg)
Recorded May 8, 1977, in Manchester. Awful sound. And when they go into "J.A." -- the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" -- you can hear the world stand up and change.
8-9) Maggie Greenwald, director, "Songcatcher" & "Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture 'Songcatcher'" (Vanguard)
The movie never gets out of its clothes, thanks to Janet McTeer, whose imperious Lily (When can I take a bath? McTeer seems to be asking every five minutes) is loosely based on Maud Karpeles, who with Cecil Sharp in 1916 to 1918 collected more than 1,600 variants of 500 songs from 281 singers in the Appalachian highlands. One remarkable scene: country singer Iris DeMent as a mountain woman offering the collector "When First Unto This Country" -- the words are prosaic, the feeling loaded into them otherworldly -- just after her husband has sold their farm for 50 cents an acre to oily Earl Giddens (David Patrick Kelley), local representative of McFarland Coal. Another: After a brawl at a dance, Giddens, beaten to a pulp by hero Tom Bledsoe (a comfortably beefy Aidan Quinn), pulls himself to his feet, closes his coat over his pistol and launches into "Oh Death." He walks off into the night, leaving the song to whoever wants to finish it -- not, luckily, the red-robed Klan leader who declaims it like a speech in the Coen Brothers' "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" What are the chances of this ancient, bottomless song turning up in two general-release movies in one year?
DeMent's performance, as thin and brittle as anything she's ever recorded, is listed as "Pretty Saro" on the soundtrack album; "Oh Death" is sung by Kelley, Hazel Dickens and Bobby McMillon as "Conversation With Death." There are other fine moments, among them Rosanne Cash's "Fair and Tender Ladies" and, from Emmylou Harris' florid "Barbara Allen" to Allison Moorer's horrid "Moonshiner," too many songs sung to the mirror. For a better song-catching film, seek out David Hoffman's early-60s "Music Makers of the Blue Ridge" (Varied Directions) if you can find it; for the songs behind the story from people who never left where the songs came from, walk into any good record store and look for Doug and Jack Wallin, "Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains" (Smithsonian Folkways), which has no flies on it.
10) David Thomas, David Johansen, Steve Earle and Philip Glass, "Kassie Jones," from Hal Wilner's Harry Smith Project (Royce Hall, UCLA, April 26)
The big all-star jam to close the all-star concert, and thanks to Glass, who sounds as if he's playing underwater, and as if he grew up doing it -- "Mr. Boogie," Thomas says disdainfully, after announcing the supergroup as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and trying and failing to figure out who's who ("Love the one you're with, baby!" someone shouts) -- the singers disappear right into the song. You can sense them attempting to hold back, to maintain some shred of individuality while exploring how a railroad man who actually lived turned into a figment of the common imagination, but the only way to tell the story is to let it tell itself.