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Richard Buckner 

The Hill (Overcoat Recordings)

Wednesday, Nov 8 2000
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When Edgar Lee Masters published his Spoon River Anthology in 1915, he had no idea what was in store for him. Somehow the lawyer-turned-poet's 244 dark, interconnected monologues on small-town life touched a nerve, and Masters became an overnight celebrity. His steamy subject matter probably helped: Each of the anthology's poems is told from the viewpoint of a resident from the fictitious town of Spoon River, few of whom made it through life without the taint of adultery, violence, or some other grievous misdeed.

The free verse of the Spoon River Anthology was groundbreaking in 1915, but its plain-spoken protagonists have faded from public consciousness over the years. That will change, however, with the new record from altcountry hero Richard Buckner, who has gone back to the Spoon River cemetery with a shovel and a tape recorder, set on exhuming the anthology's more famous residents and putting their stories to music.

While the graveyard has shrunk in the 85 years since Masters built it -- with The Hill using only 18 of the anthology's poems -- it is still clear that Buckner and Masters make formidable bandmates. Both men share the rare gift of being able to etch human experience into verse, capturing life with a miniaturist's precision. And Buckner's throaty twang -- easily one of the most soulful voices in country today -- proves a pliant vehicle for Master's tales.

A blend of the more aggressive rockisms from Buckner's last record and the bare acoustics of his earlier work, The Hill deserves a lot of compliments, but also inspires a few complaints. One of the biggest is the annoying way Buckner "encourages" listeners to experience the record as a whole by making the entire CD one track. ATTENTION MUSICIANS: Trust your audience enough to allow them to move from song to song. If your album is good enough, you won't have any trouble holding their attention.

Buckner also made the strange decision to depict some of the juiciest pairings in the anthology -- murderers and victims, illicit lovers, hateful husbands and wives -- and then to obscure the relationships by representing half of them with an instrumental. Listeners without a copy of the original book end up missing out on many of the rebuttals and counter-accusations. It's an oversight that feels intentional, as if Buckner wished to coax a new generation of readers toward some of the best ghost stories ever written.

About The Author

Chris Baty

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