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Just over two years have passed since Blue Mountain released their last album, Homegrown, but changes in the band and in the national scene it helped create make that span seem much longer. Formed in 1993 as a sort of alt-country Fleetwood Mac, the eclectic Oxford, Mississippi, trio quickly gained a following for its scorching live shows and familial harmonies, sung by the husband-wife team of Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt. Now the group's Tales of a Traveler (Roadrunner) adds a new bass player--Stirratt has switched to guitar--and dramatically varies the band's Delta blues sound, a sign of just how much the genre has turned against staid traditionalism.
If any band epitomizes the altered alt-country landscape since Blue Mountain came to town last year, it's Wilco, whose bassist is Laurie's twin brother and Hudson's former bandmate in the Hilltops. This year Jeff Tweedy and company buried any remnants of twang deep below the roiling surface of Summerteeth, an album indebted more to Revolver than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And Wilco wasn't alone: Joe Henry, the Old 97s, Robbie Fulks, and Golden Smog all made a break from the middle of the road for what Neil Young calls "the ditch." Blue Mountain haven't quite repainted their sound with as many new layers, and the lineup change was really born of necessity. (Plagued with pain from repetitive-motion stress in her wrist, Stirratt found rhythm guitar didn't exacerbate the condition.) But the drum machines, horns, and congas augmenting Tales of a Traveler are nothing if not of a new time.
Reached in Columbia, Missouri, on a tour stop, Hudson allows that Stirratt's second guitar may have fattened the former power trio into a looser quartet, giving Hudson more room to roam with his electric leads. But he adds that bassist George Sheldon's stronger blues sensibility has brought the group's sound even closer to their roots in the honky-tonks of Mississippi. Not that Hudson doesn't have the blues in his blood as well, having toured on guitar with R.L. Burnside's band. "Living in Mississippi, you're surrounded by the blues," he says. "It's still very much alive where we are."
It's also still evident in Blue Mountain's tougher new sound, albeit filtered through the punk and psychedelic rock that Hudson and Stirratt grew up on. When they cover Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" in concert, Hudson works up a roar closer to an amplified lawn mower than the choked cries of Johnson's battered acoustic. He says his wife grooved to the likes of T. Rex as a teen, and, now that she has started to contribute songs, her guitar-rock background shows up in the chunky riffage of cuts such as "Sleepin' in My Shoes." It also rears its head on the Hudson-Stirratt collaboration "Lakeside," a wonderful high school nostalgia number with the immortal couplet "Leaning on a street lamp/Making out to Supertramp."
The presence of producer Dan Baird, alumnus of Eighties roots rockers Green on Red, probably reinforced the band's new tendencies toward "meat-and-potatoes rock 'n' roll," Hudson says. The first half of the new album heaps its plate full of the stuff, piling on Skynyrdian tunes such as "I Don't Wanna Say Goodnight." But mindless rawk riffs always serve the words here, and Hudson packs his lyrics with vivid details. Together, the triumvirate of "Poppa," "Comicbook Kid," and "Lakeside" form an unblinking but warm-hearted portrait of a scrappy kid that could well be a young Hudson. The third number brings in a Moog synth to whistle circles behind the verses and in the breaks, and somehow the touch of chic retro-futurism works perfectly with the quartet's signature organic sound. Closing Traveler's dazed second half is "Just Passing Through," a woozy tune featuring handclaps, a piano, a violin, and a trombone that sounds like a stoned answer to "Dreamer in My Dreams," the blind-drunk hootenanny that capped Wilco's 1996 double album Being There.
Tales of a Traveler's more adventurous sonic retoolings may come courtesy of Mark Howard, the Daniel Lanois protégé who produced only one song here (the trance-blues number "My Wicked, Wicked Ways") but mixed the album at the legendary Teatro studios. "He uses a lot of Dan's approach and techniques," Hudson says. "It was definitely virgin territory for us."
Blue Mountain have as many local ties here as Wilco, and Hudson says he's eager for his First Avenue gig on Monday, and not just because it's the band's first visit to the big club as a headliner. Twin/Tone Records founder Peter Jesperson promoted the group heavily as host of "Shakin' Street" on Rev 105, a flattering gesture for a band of die-hard Replacements fans. "John [Stirratt] got me into the Minneapolis scene," Hudson says. "And Frank [Coutch], our drummer, is the biggest Replacements fan that I've ever met, seen, or heard of." When Laurie threw her guitar in a rare but genuine display of frustration during a recent show, her bandmates paid her the ultimate compliment. "We told her it was the best guitar throw we'd seen since Bobby Stinson on Saturday Night Live."