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Inevitable baggage accompanies an album whose sessions splintered a great band, ousted three producers, and outlasted a record company. But if ex-Austinite Lucinda Williams is a paragon of self-doubt, she’s also a gifted writer who gets to the core of a character in the course of a three-minute tune. On Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), Williams’ sensuous drawl pours out remarkable yarns of longing and wanderlust. Road’s every syllable might have been hard wrought, but to everyone’s credit, it retains a refreshingly natural appeal. Was it worth the five-year wait and the psychic toll inflicted? Once you hear it, that’s not a question you’re going to ask. jeff mccord With their slavish interpretations of how the legends once did it, blues purists like John Hammond and Jonny Lang have done more damage to the once-noble genre than attrition ever could have. Give me Big Foot Chester any day. More than a little sloppy drunk, the Austin aggregation’s sophomore effort, Tabernaclin (Sympathy for the Record Industry) honks, stomps, squawks, and barrels its way through fourteen cuts that are so on the money that you can’t tell which are covers and which are originals. . . . Bandera’s Johnny Bush returns the Texas two-step to respectability with his first nationally distributed album in more than twenty years, Talk to My Heart (Watermelon), a compilation of thirteen instant dance hall classics that includes compositions by Bush, Willie Nelson, and Justin Treviño. Because of his warbling voice, Bush is known as the Country Caruso, and deservedly so. Hearing it in such fettle serves notice that Western music is alive and kicking in Texas. JOE NICK PATOSKI
Kelly Reverb and Chad Littlepage of the Dallas duo Southside Reverb wear cowboy hats on the back cover of Breakneck (ESP-SUN/Roadrunner), but “Yeehaw!” is just about the only sound you won’t hear on their clattering debut album. What you will hear is dance floor—driven techno full of burping synthesizers, mad scratching, and heavy-duty hip-hop beats reminiscent of England’s Chemical Brothers. . . . Though folk-rocker Johnny Dowd lives in New York and named Wrong Side of Memphis (Checkered Past) after Tennessee’s First City of Music, he’s a Texan by birth—and, yes, his hometown of Fort Worth does ever cross his mind. The creepy “Ft. Worth, Texas” is a murderer’s lament, as is “First There Was,” which features this irresistibly catchy chorus: “First there was a funeral/And then there was a trial/Hung me in a courtyard/And they let me hang out there awhile.” JEFF SALAMON
Monty Holmes took the road less traveled for a Lubbock musician: He went to Nashville, where he wrote songs for George Strait and others. Now he has released his own record, All I Ever Wanted (Bang II), and it’s a promising debut. His polished baritone should make mainstream country radio programmers and listeners go weak at the knees, for it’s definitely a paint-by-numbers Nashville production. But there is enough loss and longing in Holmes’s voice that he might just step away from the pack. JOHN MORTHLAND
The Dallas foursome REO Speedealer certainly lives up to its name on its second, self-titled CD (Royalty Records). There’s the band’s look: scary, shirtless, scruffy. There’s its sound: nonstop, loud, fast, punk-metal-boogie riffarama. And, for good measure, there are the titles of its songs: At least four can’t be printed in a family magazine; the ones that can include “Turkeyneck” and—oh, the horror!—“Schlitterbahn.” . . . Daniel Johnston’s first release in four years finds the legendarily antic Austin singer-songwriter returning to his signature format: the primitive homemade cassette. Frankenstein Love: Live at the Houston Room 1992 (Stress Records) is his thirteenth such recording, and its 22 tracks are alternately old faves and bare-bones versions of songs that ended up on Fun, his 1994 major-label debut. Novice listeners will find Johnston to be an acquired taste, but there is no denying the wonder, anguish, and woozy beauty of his highly personal creations—not to mention his stellar organ playing. JASON COHEN
Forge Books is all fired up about westerns. The New York publishing house turns out reliably well-written novels, and Lockhart’s Nightmare ($24.95), by Wayne Barton and the late Stan Williams of Midland, is no exception; it delivers plenty of requisite action and suspense. More lyrical and literary is Gone to Texas ($24.95), by Don Wright of Nashville, a frontier saga salted with perils and peppered with historical references. Another veteran of the genre, Maryland’s Lucia St. Clair Robson, has written Fearless ($24.95), a great western about the Great Western—the nickname for tall Texan Sarah Bowman—for Ballantine Books. . . . Austinite Margaret Ball has collaborated with the legendary sci-fi author Anne McCaffrey to produce Acorna’s Quest (Harper Prism, $23), second in a series about a pint-size, one-horned humanoid. Meanwhile, Martha Wells of College Station offers The Death of the Necromancer (Avon, $23); in a setting reminiscent of Regency France, a nobleman-thief, his police nemesis, and a malevolent sorcerer clash. Take either of these fantasy novels on vacation for two escapes in one. ANNE DINGUS