It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You the Best (Koch)

Once heard, the voice of Karen Dalton creates a fascination. Everything about her transcends familiar presumptions – her race and even gender are not immediately identifiable. She sounds like an injured bird singing to herself, sighing and subsiding in a stream of plaintive mutterings. Under her influence melodies dissolve into the meandering haze that was her unique and idiosyncratic domain: a celestial sort of whining, frail but forceful, faltering but flowing. Echoes of Billie Holiday may be heard, but absorbed into a folk sensibility. Any song she interpreted was transformed into something entirely her own, intimate yet otherworldly, bearing little relation to the original. She favored material by such Bitter End peers as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, but was perhaps at her best melting down folk and blues standards like “Ribbon Bow” and Leadbelly's “Down on the Street,” on which she opens a vein of resignation that verges on the unsettling.

A native Oklahoman, Dalton wound up in the fertile New York folk world of the early '60s. In her day she was recognized by her most celebrated contemporaries, including Dylan, and The Band, whose “Katie's Been Gone” was a tribute to her. But she was infamously volatile and sublimely indifferent to such coarse-grained matters as touring and recording. It was only due to a subtle ruse employed by producer Nick Venet that she was finally coaxed into the studio to cut these 10 songs in a single session. It is one of the most relentlessly and irresistibly languid records ever made. By the time it's over, one has fathomed an emotional undertow achieved by few other singers. Dalton was to record but once more between this late-'60s gem and her death a few years ago. She was one of those unforgettable forgotten figures doomed to obscurity only by her own perversity and slim recorded output. (John Tottenham)

BILLY SWANThe Best of Billy Swan (Epic/Legacy)
Throughout a career of dizzying peaks and back-alley lows, singer-guitarist Billy Swan has distinguished himself as one of country music's great creative forces. He's roadied for hillbilly bands, worked as a studio custodian in Nashville and even filled in as a gate guard at Graceland; he also produced one of the freshest, slammingest country hits ever, Tony Joe White's swamp-churning “Polk Salad Annie,” and in 1974 wrote and recorded “I Can Help,” an international hit that topped charts all over the world and was also covered by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. That song's bright, chugging, updated rockabilly appeal put Swan on the map but only scrapes a thin layer off his mountainous heap of skill. This 16-track set plays like a scamper through Wonderland, with Swan throwing down a wild mix of brash pop and gutbucket country so finely crafted and forward-looking that a lot of it sounds like T. Rex, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee out together on a serious bender.

Swan is an exceptional guitarist whose leads, runs and fills shimmer with an ebullient charm, and his vocals are clear, clean and delicate, slipping from high-end glee to utter hopelessness in an instant. The greatest revelation here is Swan's classic 1975 slow version of the Presley hit “Don't Be Cruel.” Recast as a dirge, it makes an extraordinarily affecting lament, all wide-open spaces between a sort of “outlaw dub” drum-and-bass pattern, punctuated by eerie cascading guitar and Swan's keen, altogether bleak vocals. Definitely one of the all-time great moments of cultural reinterpretation, it's also only one of many such thrills found on this disc. Fine, fine all-American music. (Jonny Whiteside)

THE RESIDENTSOur Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses (Rykodisc)Though nobody knows who they are, eyeball-noggined obscurantists/musicians/multimedia pioneers the Residents have managed to release 30 albums in 25 years. This two-disc compilation provides a well-rounded introduction. Moving backward from most recent work to most antiquated, Disc 1 opens with “Jambalaya,” “Ship of Fools” and “Double Shot,” on which the band occasionally sounds like a grander, more twisted post-Waters Pink Floyd. It also includes “concentrates” of their CD-ROM ventures The Gingerbread Man and Freak Show, where the contents of the entire discs are distilled into one song apiece. Disc 2 features 10 minutelong jingles from the famed Commercial Album and cuts from their “new wave” albums Duck Stab and Buster and Glenn, along with additional “concentrates” from Eskimo, Fingerprince, Babyfingers and The Third Reich 'n' Roll, all groundbreaking works, condensed for your listening pleasure.

In the context of genres, the Residents' music is just too wrong to be pop. Meandering dirges, inappropriate synth-pop and Dadaesque nursery rhymes are fashioned from conventional instruments, though conventional noises are rarely produced. Their emotionally unstable guitars, calliopelike bass, synthesizer farts, occasional drum-machine patter, and vocals that remind one of the tiny, helium-tinged voices one hears on acid, like harmonizing spermatozoa, all defy categorization. It's perhaps because the Residents are hard to figure out that their music strikes fear in some hearts. Their cover versions and samples are especially scary, because they twist something familiar (rock classics) into sonic terrors. Our Poor includes a psycho-caveman's “Satisfaction,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear.” For Residents completists, it features a handful of tracks never before available to most Earthlings.

Unlike some bands, the Residents possess a weirdness that seems drilled to the bone; to call their abstruse prose and presentation surreal would be an understatement. To have kept it up for a quarter-century is commendable, and this compilation is a fitting retrospective. (Skylaire Alfvegren)

Like driving along a dark country road in the rain, with a rattle in the engine, cops in the rear-view and nothing but the radio for company, Nashville's BR5-49 pulled up to the House of Blues on a dreary Tuesday night and gave 'em a little taste of what a beer-laden roadhouse really oughta be like: steamy, sexy and stomping. While local singing cowboys Neil Mooney and the sweet-voiced Russell Scott worked hard at warming up the audience just right, their praiseworthy talents were inevitably cast adrift on a crowd laced with industry gizmos more interested in the bottom dollar than the backbeat. A motley assortment of hot rodders and their ladies, hairqueens and cowboys (you know, outsiders) nonetheless managed to shake a tailfeather to the jumpin' sounds of Scott's new lineup, featuring the blazing guitar work of Gene E. Jaramillo, and joined by guest Robert Williams (the “Big” in Big Sandy) for some sugary duet vocals.

The joint really heated up when the boys from Nashville took over. Gary Bennett (acoustic guitar, vocals), Don Herron (steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro), “Smilin'” Jay McDowell (upright bass), Chuck Mead (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals) and “Hawk” Shaw Wilson (drums, background vocals) honed their chops at the historic, tiny Robert's, a club/boot store located in the rundown Lower Broadway district of downtown Nashville. Tonight, plugging their way through numbers like “18 Wheels & a Crowbar,” “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)” and “Me 'n' Opie (Down by the Duckpond),” these boys carried on the tradition of the music they were raised on, such as '40s radio stars Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Hank Williams. Like ghosts of Nashville's heyday, BR5-49 hook you with their melodies, haunt you with their vocals and slam you with their beat. Chris Robinson of Atlanta's Black Crowes made a surprise appearance for the band's last number, looking clean, sober and shiny in a faux-alligator-embossed leather jacket.

By the way, the band's name, also the title of their current album, is a reference to a Junior Samples used-car-salesman routine from Hee Haw; the album was released on Hank Williams' birthday in '96.

Note to HOB management: Don't send your minions to hassle the photographers. That car ain't even registered to me. Help ever, hurt never, remember? (Hope Urban)

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