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Various Artists
The Moment of Truth: The Emo Diaries, Chapter Three
(Deep Elm Records)

Now on its third installment, Deep Elm Records continues to document the ill-defined posthardcore genre known as emo. The term itself comes heavily loaded -- most bands that fit the description won't cop to being an "emo" band; the word conjures images of cardiganed boys sporting tight black jeans, '50s spectacles, and Vulcan haircuts, sobbing while they scribble in their journals to a soundtrack of Sunny Day Real Estate.

The wuss factor is necessarily inherent to the genre; the music itself is built around start/stop, loud/soft melodic dynamics and complex timing changes, with as much heart-wrenching emotional excretion poured over it as possible. The Moment of Truth stands solidly beside its predecessors, What's Mine Is Yours and A Million Miles Away, as a genre sampler, featuring a broad spectrum of emo-adherents from points global. The opening track, "Last Verse," by Sweden's Starmarket, rides the middle ground of pop-punk anthemism in the vein of Jawbreaker and Knapsack, augmented by anxious, nasal vocals that give the song an appropriately high-school feel. Planes Mistaken For Stars also occupies a recognizable emo-mold -- its song "The Past Two" vacillates between pummeling melody with hoarse, screamed vocals and meandering ambiance with whispered singing.

Chicago's Sweep the Leg Johnny shows its regional roots on the track "New Buffalo," sounding like early '90s math-core pioneers Cap'n Jazz after a shot of Demerol, subdued but resisting it. Elsewhere, Speedwell's "Pacifique," Epstein's "The Right Hand Rule," and Psara's "Christopher Columbo" demonstrate just how gosh-darned pretty rock music can still be. Conversely, Biblical Proof of UFOs' "Cigar" and Schema's "Vanishing" get tense and complex, showing the genre's darker roots, though there's nothing here quite as volatile as the old-school emo-core of Heroin or Universal Order of Armageddon.

The Moment of Truth, like all compilations, has its weak moments -- Cross My Heart's track "Hearing Things" and Ultramagg's "One Thousand Directions" both suffer from emo-mediocrity, sounding like a million other fresh-faced, pop-inflected bands who have too many Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World records in their collections. This isn't a problem exclusive to the record though, the genre itself is flooded (no matter how many of these bands decry the label affixed to their foreheads), and thus the true innovators are drowned in all the noise. The Emo Diaries series is your best bet at sorting through it all.

-- Brendan Kelley

Various Artists
Real: The Tom T. Hall Project

Most tribute albums are vacuous and transparent efforts to suck the cash out of as many wallets as possible with as little effort as necessary. But perhaps that trend is turning around with the recent release of the nicely assembled Burt Bacharach tribute, the independent and brilliant sonic tip of the hat to Kinky Friedman, and even further legitimization of the form with Real: The Tom T. Hall Project.

If ever there were a songwriter ripe for tribute, it's Hall. Almost unbelievably, Hall's first hit came 32 years ago, and within the subsequent year, he wrote one of the best-known story songs of the 20th Century, "Harper Valley P.T.A.," which Jeannie C. Riley rode to the top of the pop and country charts, ultimately earning her a Grammy. The song vaulted Hall into the limelight, and that boost helped him to forge a long and respected career as a thoroughly unique songwriter and performer who has consistently taken country music far beyond its established limits.

Real is neither a reverential homage nor a goofy parody but a wildly eclectic assemblage of talent performing a similar range of songs representative of Hall's astounding career. In a stacked deck of highlights, Johnny Cash's "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew," Freedy Johnston's "Coffee, Coffee, Coffee," Calexico's "Tulsa Telephone Book," and Whiskeytown's transcendent seven-minute version of "I Hope It Rains at My Funeral" are all worthy of extra attention. And just when you thought no one could bring anything fresh to a three-decade-old classic, it falls to Syd Straw and Lou Whitney's Skeletons to breathe new life and even some new lyrics into "Harper Valley P.T.A." Additional contributions from the likes of Kelly Willis, Iris DeMent, Ron Sexsmith, Joe Henry, Ralph Stanley (both I and II), and Mark Olson and Victoria Williams show just how pervasive Hall's influence has been on succeeding generations of songwriters. The ties that bind the tributers with the tributee on Real are the unconventional way in which they all tell a story in song and the respect that they all have for that craft.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Real is the manner in which these diverse artists, all of whom are country at the core but choose wildly differing methods of expression, seamlessly incorporate Hall's deceptively complex country odes into their own quirky deliveries. Talent attracts talent, and no singer-songwriter working today deserves this amazing lineup more than Tom T. Hall.

-- Brian Baker

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