Tools in the Dryer
This 16-song collage is about as cohesive as a drunken diary entry by Syd Barrett, but as a collection of "A-sides, B-sides, live tracks and remixes," that's exactly as it should be. Lambchop may be Nashville's least favorite sons, but these gems prove that even their table scraps are worth a listen and a laugh. A bit less country and a lot less heinous than their hometown's regular fare, these guys have churned out brilliantly skewed twang since '92. The two singles that kick off the disc showcase the traits the band has relied on ever since: goofy dissonance (on the irresistible "Nine") and slow-heeled slide guitar (on "Whitey," a 1997 tribute to Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford that's so American it hurts). The perfectly chosen cover of Vic Chesnutt's "Miss Prissy"—which boasts one of Vic's kinder choruses: "Knuckles on a cheese grater"—is a definite highlight, as are Jonathan Marx's fascinating liner notes, which rival Peter Buck's comments on REM's Dead Letter Office. Also putting in cameos: bedroom jams, marvelously off-key $2 flutes, lo-fi squawks, beautiful acoustic discards, and an inexplicably Bee Gees-esque cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love." Some songs on Tools in the Dryer get by on sheer comic value; others should have been college-radio staples. All in all, it's a delicious sampling of odds and ends for those who like their Lambchop rare and well done. (Kristin Fiore)
The Handsome Family
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Though not autobiographical, the Handsome Family's songs of misery, pain and death, set mostly in snow-covered prairies and along desolate roads, sound as authentic as Granny's apple pie. With the wisdom and poetic skills of people far more urbane, husband-and-wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks (who were brought up musically in Chicago's colorful alterna-country scene) stake out the sort of subject matter one might expect from an 80-year-old Mississippi bluesman. Brett no longer gets by moaning and howling Rennie's gorgeous lyrics in a somber baritone; instead, on Twilight, he really sings(on the old-timey country tune "Cold, Cold, Cold," he sounds like a young Johnny Cash). The Handsome Family also incorporate sad little piano bits on songs like "The Snow White Diner" and "There Is a Sound," adding to the morose banjos, dobros, autoharps and mandolins that make up their overall bleak, prairie-dog death-rock oeuvre. But it's Rennie's stories of nature reclaiming an abandoned shopping mall in "Peace in the Valley Once Again" and a blind man who hears angels whispering inside potatoes in "Gravity" that make the Handsome Family among the most captivating musical acts out there—five albums into their catalog, Twilight is as close to perfect as they've gotten. (Adam Bregman)