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Tarnation lay on the pedal-steel melodrama pretty thick, but they manage to offer more than just another variety of Americana noir, thanks to two not always compatible qualities: sincerity and a sense of humor. The sincerity comes through partly in respect for form; there's little doubt Tarnation's country-music worldview is filtered through old movies and other vehicles of nostalgia, but that doesn't mean they're emulating Patsy Cline and Hank Williams just for cheap thrills. No, these city kids have really paid attention to all that vintage heartache, and they get it right, or as right as they want to get it.

The group's sense of humor is, unfortunately, somewhat downplayed by the omission of tunes from I'll Give You Something like "Rancho Carne Humano" and "They Took You Away Once Again"--in the latter, Frazer tells a psychotic ex-lover, "I've let all the people in our basement go free/and I've given your knives to the Salvation Army." But even so, on Gentle Creatures Tarnation take themselves with enough grains of salt to throw in a line about a guy with "sausage-shaped fingers" in the middle of an elegantly sad ballad of lost love.

Where Tarnation are reserved, melancholy, and oblique, another West-Coast faux-country outfit--L.A.'s Geraldine Fibbers--are exhilarating and anthemic, sandwiching mournful fiddle between crunchy guitar rave-ups and introducing a singer who sounds as if she has enough personality to go head-to-head with Courtney Love, no holds barred. Carla Bozulich has a nice way with a guitar and a sarcastic screech, and she knows how to entertain herself in style: As she sings on "Dragon Lady," the album's first single, "I'm stopping everything/making fun of myself/drinking lipstick/tipping bookshelves/ripping up words that I thought were important/... Everything I say is a stupid lie/I won't tell the truth even when I die." Running over with Bozulich's dreamy tales of violent love and Daniel Keenan's noisy but tuneful guitar, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home is a top-notch debut in the L.A. urban-country-punk tradition instigated by Exene Cervenka and John Doe. (Ivan Krielkamp)

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