The Great Unknowns, Homefront
After a wait of seven years the Great Unknowns have a follow-up to their superb debut CD, and while Becky Warren's new batch of songs have on the whole a little less melodic intensity than the earlier set, her soft alto retains its ability to soothe and wrench at the same time. The opening track, "Lexington," is a high-energy roots-rocker in search of a strong chorus, but "Dead River, Lake County" fulfills the promise of Avril Smith's tight guitar intro and Warren's tersely sweet opening melody.
Images of traveling by highway, a country music commonplace, are thick all over this album as they were on the band's last – in fact so ubiquitous that they become a deeply important theme. Added to that is a concern with communication woes: "You've got a way of saying something/That everyone wants to hear/In a way that no one wants to hear it," goes the refrain of "Birmingham," while the bouncy throwaway "Bad Way" treats similar subject matter with a lighter touch.
The title track, with its words of love and longing, its biting guitar, and its ghostly Wurlitzer arpeggios (by guest keyboardist Tyler Wood), acutely represents the unusual ability this band has always possessed to rock and sound plaintive at the same time. The slow closer, "Army Corps of Engineers," fittingly wraps up the album with a sad but hopeful look at a family relationship traumatized by war: "Like a radio signal down a long highway/This too is gonna pass away."
Arty Hill, Another Lost Highway
Speaking of road themes, this unprepossessing set of "modern honky tonk" zips by with an easygoing energy that carries good, solid songs played by top-quality musicians who make it sound easy.
Hill's last album was a Hank Williams tribute, and the influence of Williams, Johnny Cash, and other greats of traditional country music is emblazoned on these 12 original tunes. Though the music fits securely in the country tradition, some of the subject matter has a wry, humorous twist, like the hospital scene depicted in "Omaha ICU" ("My baby she don't come around/To see me in my paper gown"), or "King of That Thing," about a pedal steel guitarist with "lightning hands/and syncopated smile on his face/Better hide your woman and her bestest friend." It's an appropriate sentiment, as there is quite a bit of notably excellent pedal steel playing on this disc, from several different musicians.