February 12, 2004

Test Spin: Various Artists

Print More

Whiskeytown doesn’t contribute the best track to the alt-country compilation No Depression, but frontman Ryan Adams does get off the best line: “so I started this damn country band/ cause punk rock was too hard to sing.” The line is typical of the alt-country approach; weirdly post-modern lyric wedded to ultra-traditional instrumentation.

The album assembles the genre’s patron saints and sinners (The Carter Family and Johnny Cash end and begin the compilation) alongside little knows and major figures. While there’s more than enough filler to keep No Depression from greatness — along with one wretched outing from usually dependable Nemo Case — any album where Johnny Cash’s song isn’t the best one is definitely a keeper.

Four songs achieve better-than-Cash status, although his opener, a Willie Nelson cover called “Time of the Preacher,” finds him in his outlaw prime, his growl settling protectively over the whole project. Cash’s defiant piety resurfaces in Kevin Gordon’s masterful duet with Lucinda Williams, whose “Down to the Well” proclaims the end of a relationship with joy. Kasey Chambers contributes a criminally catchy song, “Dam,” which proves that Sonic Youth style distortion and country twang can be a killer combination. Emmylou Harris is every bit as mournful and ethereal as one has come to expect on “Farther Along,” and The Carter Family adds the perfect outro: “No Depression in Heaven.” Play these country songs backwards and you won’t regain your pickup, wife, and dog; but you might get your innocence, your hope, and your soul.

Archived article by Erica Stein