A misfit from day one, Belton farm boy and banjo prodigy DANNY BARNES got bitten early by the punk-rock bug when the first Sex Pistols record came out, in 1977. A little more than a decade later he formed the offbeat bluegrass group the Bad Livers, whose oeuvre included songs by everyone from Thelonious Monk to the Butthole Surfers. Even for open-minded Austin audiences, it was a bit much, especially when the band started dropping power chords and electronics into the mix. Barnes moved to the Pacific Northwest eventually and continued to self-release increasingly unpredictable projects as well as collaborate with jazz musicians like Bill Frisell. Then another Seattle resident, rock star Dave Matthews, signed Barnes to his label, prompting Barnes to head in a more commercial direction. And to a degree, he’s succeeded. Both ROCKET (ATO) and its little-noticed 2009 predecessor, Pizza Box, are his most song-focused efforts. Rocket, which places intricate guitar and banjo lines under Barnes’s nasal vocals, is the more refined of the two, but somehow no less weird. “Rich Boy Blues” typifies Barnes’s approach: an insistent rhythm builds tension, while disembodied whispers lead into a banjo breakdown. It’s ingenious and catchy, as are many others: the creepy “Poison,” the funk workout “Low,” the resigned “One.” Still, this isn’t quite chart-topping material. For most listeners, the backwoods/high-tech juxtapositions and folksy-sounding lyrics about tourniquets and eight balls could be a tough proposition.
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