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A truly unique singer-songwriter, Richard Buckner has managed to craft an impressive musical career in the span of six years and three albums. Working with musicians that include New York avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot, Texas pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, Chicago indie rock stalwarts John McEntire and David Grubbs, and Arizona desert dwellers Giant Sand, Buckner has written songs in the country-folk-rock vein that stubbornly refuse to fall into any of those categories.

On his fourth album, The Hill, Buckner continues to stray from any musical main road, opting to follow a rural path to the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois--the setting of Spoon River Anthology, the 1915 classic by Edgar Lee Masters. (The book is a series of poetic narratives by 244 of the town's former residents, who recite their epitaphs from beyond the grave.) In adapting 18 of these grim, reflective poems to music, Buckner has created an intriguing (though sometimes unwieldy) album that plays out in one 34-minute track. As he shifts from poem to poem, the musical atmosphere changes, with instrumentation ranging from sparse acoustic guitars to fuzzed-out electric guitars to odd organ drones. Depending on the character that Buckner is channeling, the singer's voice also changes, moving from a high, nasally sigh to a low, gutteral growl.

Though the pairing of the music and words sometimes seems a bit forced, Buckner's interpretations are generally inspired, largely due to his own literary-minded lyrical sensibility. And it doesn't hurt that he's backed by one of the best rhythm sections in music today-bassist-cellist Joey Burns and drummer-percussionist John Convertino, otherwise known as both Calexico and the long-time rhythmic core of Giant Sand. Although it's not always easy going, Buckner's album is an admirable and unusual effort that often finds moments of rustic beauty in the midst of its bleak tales.

--Eric Schneider

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