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Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers

“Starlight Hotel”

Signature Sounds

There’s an lovely awe-shucks quality about country singer Zoe Muth.

“I never figured anyone would really like this stuff,” she says on her web page.

Growing up in Seattle, home to Hendrix and Pearl Jam, it’s honky-tonk that comes so naturally to the young Muth, along with a charming drawl. “I just open my mouth when I sing and that’s what comes out,” she says.

It’s that clear, unforced passion, “not for the jet set, but the old Chevrolet set,” that informs all of these songs, along with a high, pure voice that rises to Iris Dement and Patty Griffin territory.

On her sophomore album, Muth is backed again by her rock solid Lost High Rollers (a Townes Van Zandt reference), adding piano, mandolin, dobro, trumpet and best of all, pedal steel. Joy Mills and Tom Parker of the Starlings also pitch in on vocals.

Close your eyes and it’s 1970 again with heartbreaking jukebox shufflers like “Let’s Just Be Friends For Tonight” and “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter, How Can I Trust You With My Heart”

“When you moved in a little closer, I had no intention of saying ‘No sir,’ ” she sings in the latter.

Bright Mariachi horns light up the opener, “I’ve Been Gone,” while a lonesome electric guitar howls away in “New Mexico.”

There isn’t a bad song on this album, just like there wasn’t on Muth’s 2009 debut. The only bad thing is that Muth’s honest country will never find its way to country radio.

James McMurtry

“Live in Aught-Three” (with the Heartless Bastards)

“Childish Things”

Lightning Rod Records

James McMurtry has spent the last 20 years being praised by critics and ignored by record buyers. In 2007, he won Americana Music Awards for album and song of the year, and the writer Stephen King, in his column for Entertainment Weekly, called McMurtry the best songwriter in America.

That hasn’t prevented McMurtry’s best two albums, “Live in Aught-Three” from 2004, and 2005’s “Childish Things” from slipping out of print.

Lightning Rod Records reissues both in remastered versions that have never sounded better. The reissues won’t do much to lift McMurtry into the prominence he deserves, but it gives his best song, “We Can’t Make it Here” from “Childish Things” another shot. In a later column, King called it the best American protest song since Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”

That’s debatable, but it is a great song, bristling with outrage at everyone from fellow Texan George W. Bush to Wal-Mart. The title cut, along with “Slew Foot” with Joe Ely, “Pocatello” and “See the Elephant,” is McMurtry at his storytelling best.

The live set with his band the Heartless Bastards (Sadly, not Erika Wennerstrom’s Heartless Bastards, which would be a perfect pairing), is a relentless rocker, nearly 80 blazing minutes culled from four shows. Garage rockers like “Red Dress” and “Choctaw Bingo” get an airing, along with a sweet, sentimental run through “Lights of Cheyenne.” It winds up with a roof-raising run through Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.”

Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Orchestra

“Tito Puente Masterworks Live”


To Bobby Sanabria, conductor of this world-class student orchestra, he’s still “Maestro Puente.”

To just about everyone else, he’s Tito Puente, the king of afro-Cuban jazz. And, when he died in 2000, so did much of the momentum Latin jazz had enjoyed for decades.

Sanabria and his crack big band do their best to revive those glory days of hip-shaking, room-filling Latin swing.

The band draws from Puente’s huge and diverse songbook, echoing his influences from classical to bebop. The young players blaze through hard-charging mambos like “Picadillo” and “Cuban Nightmare.” There’s also a gushing “Yambeque” and they put their own ultra-cool, vibe-heavy stamp on the rare cover, “Autumn Leaves.”

Like a lot of big band stuff, the tunes can get a little messy and dense, with overplayed solos and stretches of everyone wanting to be heard at once. But, there isn’t too much of that, and when the band does straighten things out, it’s easy to picture Puente out front, smiling broadly as always, and having a blast.

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