Picks and Pans Review: Wheels of Fortune

updated 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Flatlanders
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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This trio of Texas neo-troubadours could be considered the Traveling Wilburys Southwest—full of wry folk wisdom and raw, twangy musical talent. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock have been around the Lone Star State on their own for years after teaming up in an earlier incarnation of the Flatlanders in 1972. Thirty-two years later they sound as vigorous, tuneful and shrewd as ever on this follow-up to 2000's Now Again. The Flatlanders aren't going to cheer too many people up philosophically. Ely's "Back to My Old Molehill" reflects the group's collective cynicism and wit: "I tried to hide the pain, but the pain it would not hide/And when I tried to tell the truth, the truth turned around and lied." The three are masters of Texas blues, most evidently in Gilmore's "Deep Eddy Blues" and Al Strehli's "Whistle Blues," the only outsider's song among the 14 on the disc.

Throughout the album, the Flatlanders' plaintive singing is artfully supported by a band that includes guitar whiz Rob Gjersoe, accordionist Joel Guzman and Steve Wesson on, no kidding, "musical saw." Wesson's presence is more a joke than a musical contribution, of course. But these three happily idiosyncratic vocalists are not to be taken lightly. They are supreme practitioners of an art form shaped over the years by the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings and, more recently, Pat Green. Listening to them is like watching one of those old Westerns where three strangers ride into town to shake things up. You'll be glad they did.

COUNTRY

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