(Rykodisc/Slow River Records)
You could say Richard Buckner plays alternative country, the so-called '90s amalgam of alternative rock and country popularized by the likes of Uncle Tupelo and its offspring Wilco and Son Volt, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Buckner isn't exactly another wayward hillbilly playing upbeat tunes for a newfound market. Sure, his songs tend to feature characteristics normally associated with country music -- crisp guitar picking and a steady, drawling voice -- but Buckner complicates the standardized formulas of country and even alternative country music by writing moody songs with abstract lyrics and quirky instrumentation.
Buckner's two albums on MCA, 1997's Devotion+Doubt and 1998's Since, feature musicians such as Marc Ribot, the New York guitar experimentalist known for his work with Tom Waits, and David Grubbs, the guitarist and pianist who founded the postpunk bands Squirrel Bait and Bastro. Not your typical hayseeds.
But before he signed with MCA in the mid-'90s and hired innovative musicians to play on his albums, Buckner recorded an album of bright-eyed, folk-country songs. First released in Europe in 1993, then on a small label in the United States a year later, Bloomed was recently rereleased in the states by Rykodisc. Produced by steel guitar ace Lloyd Maines, Bloomed is filled with the warm sounds of moaning slide guitar and mandolin plinking. Fiddle, accordion, and harmonica also give the album's 17 songs a comforting folksy ring.
On "Blue and Wonder," Buckner's voice is measured, smooth, and unlike the deep growl he employs on his later albums. Jumping from one note to another with the precision of an accomplished yodeler, he sings true to pitch while strumming open guitar chords. Mixed lyrical images of nature and lost love reinforce the album's country feel. On "Rainsquall," for instance, he sings: "The moon's crying through the breaking clouds/As I pour through another town/There's lights off the coast and I love you most/When the rain comes weeping down."
Bloomed was recorded in Lubbock and Austin, Texas, where Townes Van Zandt and several other purveyors of folk country and roots-rock got their start. Though Buckner is from California, he was clearly writing in the Texas idiom in the early '90s. On Bloomed his songwriting wasn't a far cry from the music Van Zandt had written 15 or 20 years earlier. Both penned sorrowful tales of hurt, abandon, and absentee lovers set to acoustic and lap steel guitar.
The pleasant acoustic sounds on Bloomed seem to suggest Buckner was poised for a career in straightforward folk when the album was released in 1993. Instead he chose to venture into other realms. Though these early songs don't have the adventurous instrumental touches of his later work, they stand as evidence of Buckner's ability to write strong, uncomplicated, and affecting songs. -- Daniel Lovering
Hey Ho Let's Go!
In most accounts of how rock 'n' roll was forever changed in the '70s, the heroes of the story don't look at all like the Ramones. But the stark reality of history is that four scruffy, leather-and-shredded-denim mutts from the streets of Forest Hills, New York, set out in the mid-'70s to have a good time at rock's expense and wound up altering the musical jet stream in the process. The Ramones performed radical cosmetic surgery on the stodgy face of rock, liposuctioned the fat from its bloated midsection, and at the very least made damn sure that no one would ever look at punk rock the same way again.
There have been a couple of attempts to reconcile the history of the Ramones, but the double-disc release of Hey Ho Let's Go! may be the most extensive and comprehensive of the bunch. The revolutionary wallop of the band's first three albums is well documented on the set, as is its often dismissed but fascinating early '80s work. Hey Ho Let's Go! goes the extra mile, though, distinguishing itself from previous greatest-hits compilations by detailing the Ramones' run right up to the band's last gasp in 1996. In retrospect it might be odd to think of the Ramones and artistic evolution in the same tangled thought, but Hey Ho Let's Go! forces the listener to accept the proof and realize that the band actually matured and grew throughout its turbulent and not always successful history.
There is little in the way of unreleased material on Hey Ho Let's Go! There are, however, a few rarities: favored Ramones producer Ed Stasium's unreleased mixes of "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "I Want You Around"; a handful of retooled album cuts released as singles; a couple of altered cuts imported from England and Japan; and another couple of rare B sides, including the Dee Dee Ramone composition "I Don't Want to Live This Life (Anymore)," originally intended for the film Sid and Nancy. For the most part, though, the appeal of the 58-track Hey Ho Let's Go! is the sheer bulk of it, not to mention the gorgeous 80-page hardbound book that accompanies the set, which includes illuminating text from Ramones manager Danny Fields and veteran rock scribe David Fricke.
Out of context it may be difficult to fully understand the cultural impact of the Ramones on music's social order. To appreciate the Ramones' thrashing birth pangs, one must first recognize the stranglehold that the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Styx, and Fleetwood Mac held over the pop world at that moment. Concerning the question of who gets the credit for altering the musical landscape first, it may only be a coincidence that the Ramones' first release preceded the recorded debuts of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. (Their developments are fairly parallel otherwise.) But when the subject is longevity after the fact, only the Ramones pass the grueling test of time with flying punk colors. -- Brian Baker