Reviews of CDs by Last Train Home, Slaid Cleaves, and Hot Little Number 

Now Hear This

Last Train Home, "True North" (Adult Swim) — With gorgeous, languid melodies, clean instrumental lines and a strong country-folk heart, it's no wonder this D.C.-based band's second CD won honors at the recent Washington Area Music Association awards show. Led by lead singer-songwriter and Washington Post columnist Eric Brace, the group plays with an easygoing swagger that moves confidently through a mix of originals and songs by Buck Owens, the Carter Family and even the Tijuana Brass. Brace's "Doughnut Girl" is the song for the babe of your neon-light midnight dreams and his "Louisiana" rocks with a relentless shuffle beat that belies its tale of busted love. Alan Brace kicks in a fine road tune with "Never Been to Memphis," while "Last Train Home" tells the story of the guy who has reached the end of an all-too-familiar run. Much of this is sorrowful stuff, no doubt, but Brace's direct vocals and the band's sure-handed groove move the songs away from any hint of mournful morass. These guys are picking up more and more critical raves far beyond the D.C. area. "True North" reveals 12 tuneful reasons why.

— Ames Arnold

Slaid Cleaves, "Broke Down," (Philo) — Cleaves' long-awaited second CD is a worthy follow-up to 1997's "No Angel Knows," an excellent recording that won him critical acclaim if less than astounding record sales. This project's 10 cuts, however, carry with them a sadder and wiser tone than the previous effort. The hard-fought life of a traveling troubadour scratching for the break that places talent on an even playing field with commercial concerns has been no easy road for this Austin-based singer. But if there's disappointment in the air, there's no retreat in the spirit and that's the winning hand Cleaves plays throughout this project.

Backed by a sharp and tasteful band that includes Cleaves' longtime friend and Richmond musician, Charles Arthur, the songwriter tells his straightforward tales of broken love and trashed hopes with some regret, but with nary a notion of defeat. When he sings "I've felt the cold wind blow/I've seen trouble hanging 'round/Bring it on, bring it on" there's a conviction that belies any notion of self-pity. "Broke Down" is a finely detailed slice of unbowed humanity that deserves a listen.

Cleaves plays Poe's Pub Thursday, March 2. — A.A.

Hot Little Number, "Hot Little Hits," (Porcelain Productions) The debut from Richmond's Hot Little Number is fast (six songs under 15 minutes) and starts off hot, but goes lukewarm after a few listens.

"Choque," the first and best song on the CD, is a pure, flag-waving, start/stop pop-punk anthem following the three-chord blueprint with plenty of originality. "Nik's Imaginary Friend" comes close to the same.

Guitarist Nikki Price, bassist Tim Harriss and drummer Patrick Cardenas should've kept things simple. Elements like the vocal distortion on "Black Dog," and the lengthy '80s guitar solo on "Look Pal," even if humorous to the band, only douse the potential in this CD. Too many times I felt like I'd heard all this before.

"Hot Little Hits" has sparks, and if the band gets more aggressive with the guitar and drums, and sticks to the basics, it could really light something on fire. But I listened to this CD about 10 times before realizing I should've stopped after the first listen. — Wayne Melton

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