Listening Room: What's Been Tickling Our Earholes Lately

As Rocks Off has noted in our periodic Mail Call entries, even though the tide of promo CDs has been greatly reduced by the digital revolution - Rocks Off can count on one finger (the middle one) the times he's actually used the streaming/download email link publicists are ever more fond of these days - he still gets more new CDs via snail mail than any one person can rightfully be expected to audition.

Most of these are eliminated either through gut instinct or a quick glance at the accompanying bio, but quite a few still find their way onto the old CD player. Here's what we've been digging most the past couple of weeks.

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The Boxmasters
, Modbilly (Vanguard): First of all, we just wanted an excuse to post the hilarious Sling Blade prank call we ran across on YouTube the other day (above). More to the point, Modbilly - which ever so slightly ramps up the British Invasion influence over the laid-back country-rock trio's self-titled 2008 debut - confirms that Billy Bob Thornton's writing talents aren't confined to his Oscar-winning screenplays.

Thornton's originals on Disc 1 ("Ours"), especially "Reasons for Livin'," "That's Why Tammy Has My Car," "New Mexico" and "Two Weeks Notice," deftly balance heartbreak and humor. That, in turn, gives the "Theirs" covers disc a comfortably lived-in feeling that shines on Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind" and Bill Anderson's Sunday-school-teacher rebuke "The Lord Knows I'm Drinkin'." No doubt He does.

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The Bellrays
, Hard Sweet and Sticky (Anodyne): This one was a no-brainer that went straight from the envelope to the CD player because a) he thought the SoCal soul-punk crew fronted by firebrand Lisa Kekaula, which Rocks Off thinks he once described as "Tina Turner fronting the MC5" for a previous paper, had broken up; and b) obviously, they haven't. Not by a long shot, either: tracks like "One Big Party," "Psychotic Hate Man" and "Pinball City" are as balls-to-the-wall fierce as ever, while slower songs such as "The Fire Next Time" and "Wedding Bells" are soulful and no less steely. Don't be surprised to hear this on Little Steven's Underground Garage sooner rather than later.

Booker T, Potato Hole (Anti-): The latest soul legend to discover kindred spirits in Southern-rock standard bearers Drive-By Truckers (see also Bettye LaVette on 2007's The Scene of the Crime), the "Green Onions" man converts his smooth Memphis funk to crunchy Muscle Shoals fonk on both originals ("Pound It Out," "Warped Sister," "Nan," a tribute to his wife) and covers (OutKast's "Hey Ya!," Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule," the Truckers' own "Space City"). Hold the organ jokes, please.

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Ray Charles
, Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection (Concord): Maybe not the ultimate Brother Ray collection, but as a single-disc summary, Genius works well enough. "Busted" sounds more and more prescient each time Rocks Off looks at his bank statement, and most of Charles' R&B ("Hit the Road Jack," "I've Got a Woman"), country ("I Can't Stop Loving You," "Crying Time") and pop ("Georgia On My Mind," "Yesterday") winners are pristinely accounted for. And no matter how many times you've heard it, his "America the Beautiful" - sappy strings and all - will make you stand up and pledge allegiance every time.

Look for more where these came from later on this week.


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