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Lucinda Williams

Little Honey

Lost Highway

Sounds like: Songwriting magic

Short take: Little Honey, lots of Williams

In alt-country and Americana circles, Lucinda Williams is queen. You get the sense she could easily venture down to Sheryl Crow's level, but thankfully, Williams keeps creating chapters in her own idiosyncratic book. This leads us to Little Honey. Embodying her shot-and-a-beer spirit and songwriting acumen is the sublime Elvis Costello duet "Jailhouse Tears." The down-and-dirty tale of two downward-spiraling souls imbues an earnestness rarely experienced on country radio or rock radio, for that matter. Adding a mid-tempo guitar-solo romp that captures a losers-in-love feel, the song is an instant classic. Then there's "Honey Bee," which twangs with impunity, as well as "Real Love." The latter is as close as she comes to a true contemporary country song. Little Honey is a delicious album sure to stick with you for decades to come. John Benson


Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers

Inside Tracks

Telarc Records

Sounds like: Thackery breaking out of the bars

Short take: Nighthawk at the diner eats it all

Mention the name Nighthawks to roots-music maniacs, and almost everyone will have at least one story about seeing the band during its long career. That group practically lived on the road, playing every conceivable nightclub across the country. On his own with Inside Tracks, guitarist Jimmy Thackery mixes things up, creating songs from blues, rock and country influences. He also sounds like he's got a lot on his mind, with songs like "That Dog Won't Hunt" and "Change the Rules," even as he lets his guitar do much of the talking. He keeps an eye out for fun, too, with the Ventures-styled "Landlocked," while "Eat It All" is a six-minute workout of swampy fever and sassy vocals, walking the low roads with some stinging leads and menacing thoughts. Thackery has found his freedom, and isn't about to squander it on anything less than his best. Bill Bentley



Ode to J. Smith

Fontana / Release date: Nov. 4

Sounds like: Finding pop-blues equilibrium

Short take: "Invisible Band" reappears

To Travis fans who suffered through the band's recent dour patch (specifically 2003's 12 Memories and 2007's The Boy with No Name): The Brit pop group has apparently exorcised its malaise for a more bluesy sound. The guitars turned up, and the songwriting efforts have been upped as well on Ode to J. Smith. In an instant, the anthemic "Chinese Blues" has more credibility than any Oasis track ever (ever!), while "Friends" successfully expands on the band's mesmerizing songwriting skills. However, the real gem is the mini-suite-like "J. Smith," which finds mindless yet engulfing vocals cascading over intermittent guitar riffs. The song plays out like a daydream, bouncing one moment from an overwhelming chorus to a ripping guitar solo the next. Travis may have cut loose some casual fans earlier this decade, but the time is right to get back on board. John Benson

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