A menacing guitar sortie launches Beneath the Country Underdog, Kelly Hogan's second solo record, driving the Johnny Paycheck classic "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate" off the sawdust floor and into the power-pop garage. No, it's not country, nor hardly country rock, but given the label (Bloodshot) and Hogan's own background, that's no surprise and even less cause for alarm. As part of Atlanta faves the Jody Grind and the Rock-A-Teens, Hogan sports a pedigree about as alt-country as Judy Garland's or AC-DC's (two of her role models). But what she's singing and who she's singing with (she's put out for Alejandro Escovedo, Jon Langford's bands and that curious Knitters tribute project) become trivial concerns under the seductive gale of her voice. She could cover a stack of IRS returns and still invade your dreams. Here's what surprises:
For the lion's share of Underdog, Hogan gives her big, smoky-blue voice to material with just the right balance of sophistication and sex, with wily backing from Chicago alt-country all-stars Langford, Edith Frost, Steve Goulding and Tom Ray. The results suggest an updated Dusty Springfield, from the horn flourishes, B-3 strides and shiny, rhythmic Telecasting. For her CD-release party a month ago at the Hideout in Chicago, Hogan's voice -- deep, wild and somehow perfectly in command of her range -- overcame a shaky, insufficiently rehearsed band to soul-soak a set of country and rock & roll tunes, including covers of Prince, the Band, Conway and Loretta, and the Magnetic Fields. And Kelly made it all make sense. Though she hasn't received the attention of headliner and labelmate Neko Case, Hogan, her band (featuring Andy Hopkins on guitar, ex-Bottle Rocket Tom Ray on bass and Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel) and that rare place they find -- some utopia where show tunes, catchy punk, singer/songwriter smarts, and torch country live together in bliss -- should not be missed.