Reviews of new CDs

Jenny Toomey Antidote
Ex-Tsunami frontwoman and DIY diva Jenny Toomey is a smart cookie who got stupid over a man. Yet if it weren't for the power trips and mind games of that stupid man, we might not have been privy to the poetic storytelling in Antidote. Spread across two CDs, the 16 ballads and poppy tunes on this eclectic opus were cut in Nashville and Chicago on discs labeled according to city. Though recorded by different players in different locales, all the songs on Antidote are cohesive, incorporating tales of maddening love subjugation against lush sonic backdrops of pedal steel, piano, cello, horns, drums and other instruments. The instrumentation reflects a sophisticated grasp of musical styles that never sounds imitative or derivative — from the rolling drumbeats, subtle guitar cameos and searing Motown-ish horns in the Chicago-recorded "Clear Cut" to the sad violin, trumpet and tinkly piano in Nashville's torch song "Know From Me," Antidote is wholly unique. It's melodic, honest and ingeniously produced — not overproduced. Though Toomey's voice is not the greatest by traditional standards, it's viscerally beautiful with a gentle conversational cadence that builds up to soaring, cathartic wails, sneaking under your skin with the right balance of raw sincerity and vulnerability. Toomey's immediate, no-frills vocal delivery matches perfectly with her candor. In the CD's opener, "Patsy Cline," a series of talky, overlapping warnings of what not to do with her man ("Don't question his position/ Don't ever give him a pause to question your commitment/ Cuz that's his escape clause") contrasts with the confessional refrain: "Patsy Cline, she had a great line/ You took him off my hands/ Now could you get him off my mind?" In "The Artful Dodger," she draws the ever-wavering line between pain and pleasure: "There's as many kinds of happiness as there are sorts of sorrow/ He'd been studying on the former from some side car he could borrow." Antidote provides sweet relief. It's a brilliant tribute to the side of us that doles out unconditional love when the conditions are brutal. (Misra, www.misrarecords.com)
—Julie Garisto

Merle Haggard Roots Volume 1
This is one of those too-country-for-country albums that the incestuous Nashville/country radio axis will avoid like Mad Cow. It's apropos that Roots Vol. 1 was released on a subsidiary of punk label Epitaph. The 64-year-old Haggard has delivered a true honky-tonk album, featuring songs by country legends Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson, one by Hank Williams ("Honky Tonkin'") and three new originals written in the style. Hag also dug up Frizzell's original guitarist from the '50s, Norm Stephens, to lend some tasty licks. Roots displays a warmer, friendlier Haggard; there's little evidence of the scowling, bitter old hard-ass that's long been his image. His voice sounds more youthful — more syrup than barbed wire — as he sings these simple human stories. Recorded in the artist's house with equipment and microphone set-ups designed to recapture real '50s country, the production is clean and airy, never "lo-fi," with Norm Hamlet's steel guitar especially benefiting. Roots is an altogether charming disc, although perhaps a shade too obsessed with being a period piece. (Anti-, www.anti.com)
—Eric Snider

North Mississippi Allstars 51 Phantom
What began as a trio of whippersnappers doing youthful takes on the hill-country drone blues of Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and the like has rapidly evolved into a more seasoned band with a sound of its own — one that's more based on the blues. This is good and not so good. It's hard to argue with progress. The songs on 51 Phantom were (save a couple) written by the group and have a swamp-rockin' flavor, kind of like a dirtier, rootsier ZZ Top (and, on occasion, Allman Brothers). Frontman Luther Dickinson's vocals are huskier, more menacing, more present. Yet there was something wonderful about the way the Allstars tackled the traditional fare on their 2000 debut Shake Hands with Shorty, maintaining the authenticity while insouciantly goosing the blues with flash and technique. Luther is an absolutely remarkable guitar player, yet he seems bent on applying taste and restraint here. Come on, dude, you're not even 30; leave that mature shit to oldsters like Clapton and let it rip. (Tone Cool/Artemis, www.artemisrecords.com)
—Eric Snider

Q-Burn's Abstract Message Invisible Airline
Orlando-based Q-Burn stretches on Invisible Airline. It's an admirable project, freely departing from techno-groove conventions. Sure, there's the generic house diva, coming as if from beyond, instructing us to be happy, happy, over and over. But that's far from all there is. Varying from bouncy, feel-good beats to slow, low-light ambient, the CD reveals a lot of range. Sounds of airplanes taking off, electric guitars twanging and lots of "spooky" keyboard sounds demonstrate his ability to decorate the loops. "Mother's Dead," pairing a veteran bluesman's yowls with techno backing, strongly echoes Moby's hybrids. Q is a seasoned sonic alchemist who knows how to mix genres and experiment with sound. Still, the disc comes up a little short. You've heard the adage "A jack of all trades, master of none"? (Astralwerks, www.astralwerks.com)
—Natasha Del Toro

The Anniversary/Superdrag Split EP
A couple of the indie scene's finest pop-schooled outfits team up here, weighing in with three songs each and, in both cases, a marked evolution from their last full-lengths. First up are The Anniversary, who completely abandon the bouncy synth-inflected anthems of Designing a Nervous Breakdown in favor of some seriously ambitious, eclectic and largely acoustic guitar-driven tuneage. "O' Lady Butterfly" swaggers with a lazy Grifters feel, slipping into a suitably hooky chorus; "Anais" incorporates an old-school folk-shuffle to intriguing effect; and the psychedelic "Up In The Sky" manages to effectively recall Sgt. Pepper. Knoxville pop-rock veterans Superdrag leave the beautifully raw guitar tones and plaintive vocal melodies intact (why mess with perfection?) and set about screwing around with their rhythmic dynamic. The brief "Take Your Spectre Away" builds quickly with a sinuous drive and hooky riffage; "The Emotional Kind" is a straightforward, Big Star-esque tambourine-and-double-snare gem; and "I Guess It's American" revs things up, returning to the threesome's trademark visceral melodic compulsion. As with The Anniversary's contributions, there's not a clunker among the three. (Vagrant/Heroes & Villains)

—Scott Harrell