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The Next Generation

As a genre, roots rock has always hinged on looking back to go forward. And so this look at the current crop of roots artists making waves begins with a nod to Van Morrison. Van the Man, modern godfather of Celtic soul since the mid-1960s, recently dropped Pay the Devil (***) on that bastion of neo-roots prestige, Lost Highway Records. From opener "There Stands the Glass," it's clear Morrison's revisiting the blue in classic tear-in-your-beer country instead of sheets of swirling mystic. Here, the Devil's in the details, like perfectly lachrymose pedal steel and Morrison's gnarled, occasionally dissonant cries.

Brooklyn avant-garde master Carl Hancock Rux, a multi-disciplinary artist recording in the "hip-bop" vein, might seem like Morrison's polar opposite. However, by bringing bluenote focus to his new Good Bread Alley (Thirsty Ear; ***1/2), Rux does find some common ground with the Elder. And even more akin to Melvin Van Peebles and Gil Scott-Heron, Rux deploys blues here as a stealth bomb in his palette. He also seamlessly switches from airy minuet arrangements to shaping his bluenotes like a muezzin's call to prayer.

On Good Bread Alley, Rux is an anomaly (or endangered species?): a contemporary black bluesician, mining territory that's largely been ceded to the likes of the White Stripes and Black Keys. Rux takes a conceptual and eclectic approach to his New York as prime blues city. This ain't no "My baby done left me," etc., although the genre's sex and fabled avian imagery (reference to "the wings of Icarus") appear. Rux' beautiful, spellbinding baritone slings more words per verse than ought to work, but it all swings, too. In a disc of marvels, these still stand out: "Union Song (My Brother's Hands)," "Behind the Curtain," "All the Rock Stars (for Kurt Cobain)," "Living Room" and the stunning title track.

Newly minted New Yorker Allison Moorer's sixth CD, Getting Somewhere (Sugar Hill; ***), sees her trying on upbeat pop-rock. One can surmise key inspiration derives from her new husband/producer Steve Earle. His presence also salvages this CD from straying overmuch into Sheryl Crow "Soak Up the Sun" territory, although tracks like "Work To Do" give Crow a run for her money. This is redeemed by Moorer echoing the fluid Southern soul of her sister, Shelby Lynne, on the fine "Hallelujah" and "New Year's Day." Getting Somewhere largely finalizes classic rock's retreat into twang at the expense of its other parts. The disc might serve as a test case regarding the fate of the Dixie Chicks' forthcoming Taking the Long Way, produced by another edgy one, Rick Rubin.

Britain's premier Americana idolater, Gomez, returns with its debut release on Dave Matthews' jam-friendly NYC label, ATO, How We Operate (***1/2). Lead vocalist Ben Ottewell's power is somewhat downplayed, as is the group's interplay between three singers and guitarists, which always evoked the sound of The Band. Spacey jamming is restrained in favor of tighter songwriting; the most bluesy track, where Ottewell's slide shines, is the great "Chasing Ghosts with Alcohol" (although another is titled "Charley Patton Songs"). While Gomez' sonic outreach pays great dividends on such shimmering guitar-pop as the title track, "Tear Your Love Apart" and "Hamoa Beach," with its lilting boogie, the band's prior Liquid Skin stoney haze is missed.

Named for a Western pulp novelist, NYC's Oakley Hall is a novice group in this bunch. The country-rock sextet will release its second full-length of 2006, Gypsum Strings (Brah; ***), not long after the group's May 20 Charlotte date at the Milestone. Oakley Hall has largely made its reputation live, and that raw energy carries over to such songs as "Lazy Susan" and "House Carpenter," with its blazing coda. Also, owing to Oakley Hall's urban locale, the group takes its cues from 1960s Bay Area acid cowboys, such as Moby Grape, and LA-based Laurel Canyon rockers, such as CSNY, but filters this pastoral afterimage through concrete and steel. The music's hallmark is warm picking spliced with swathes of delirious raga rock and ax noise lifted from the MC5 and Neil Young's Crazy Horse. While Oakley Hall's aim is to explode No Depression inertia, it must be said that the group sounds like a continuation of the now-defunct Jayhawks -- but with sharpness derived from Brooklyn's rock underground. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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