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Various Artists | Rough Trade Shops: Country (Mute)
In their attempt to provide a definitive overview, those discerning folk at Rough Trade have spread their net wide to incorporate country music in all it's coolest (and obscurest) guises. Purists would undoubtedly question the inclusion of The Replacements and Camper Van Beethoven over, say, Johnny Cash or Lambchop, whilst others might raise an elitist eyebrow at the handful of British contributions, but few could fault the diversity and collectibility of this double set.
Giant Sand's opening Wearing the Robes of the Bible Black sets the tone; this is no easy listening jukebox assortment. Indeed it takes the faux-Americana of The Broken Family Band to break the dark spell borne of time spent with the Geraldine Fibbers, Wannabe Texans, Lincoln '65 etc. American Music Club soon drag things back into the murky waters with the twang of Gary's Song, before the uncompromising Boiled in Lead throw some feisty punk moves into the equation. The next half dozen tracks could have been lifted from a Loose Records sampler, the real heavy-hitters among disc one. Rainer does his best 'Oh Mercy' Dylan on Life Is Fine, The Handsome Family up the creepy factor with When That Helicopter Comes, Calexico's Crooked Road and the Briar adds cinemascope, Freakwater some down-home balladry. Given his distaste for categorisation and the alt.country scene in particular, its both surprising and pleasing to find Richard Buckner on this collection, and if Lil Wallet Picture was a predictable choice of track, it remains a highlight of the set. Disc One closes with two more gems, Songs:Ohia's mournful Come Back To Your Man (from 'Axxess and Ace') and the Dream Syndicate's rare take on Dylan's Blind Willie McTell.
The second disc opens with a reminder of how good a songwriter Gary Louris can be. Until You Came Along's exuberance may seem a little out of step with the bulk of this set, but this Golden Smog classic would wipe the floor with anything from the last two Jayhawks albums (former 'hawk Marc Olson crops up later with his Original Harmony Creek Ridge Dippers). The next trio - The Rockingbirds, X, and Russ Tolman's True West - remind us that the country influence was prevalent in the '80s too. Chickasaw Mudd Puppies push the envelope a little further before alt.country heroes Uncle Tupelo rein it back in with Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down. The rest of Disc Two flits between 'legends' such as Steve Earle, Dave Alvin and Willie Nelson (who duets on Carla Bozulich's closer Can I Sleep In Your Arms?), stalwarts of the country revival (Whiskeytown, The Gourds, Lullaby for the Working Class, Tarnation), and assorted oddities (Barbara Manning and Cole Marquis' 28th Day, current UK hopefuls Ella Guru) and, while the rarity factor may be low on the set overall, Jim White's previously unreleased The Girl From Brownsville Texas is an absolute classic, far and away superior to anything on his over-produced last full-length, No Such Place. (An album of similar quality would be a much more worthy, if belated, successor to his mighty debut.)
Free from the shackles of conventional compilations, Rough Trade have delved deep into their dusty basement to bring you an eclectic assortment that - personal tastes permitting - is a resounding success.

Matt Dornan
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003

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