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ALABAMA 3 (A3) (Buy CDs by this artist)
Exile on Coldharbour Lane (El-e-ment-al/Geffen) 1997
La Peste (Sony) 2000

Having made one great album and one dreadful one, Britain's Alabama 3 (who are known in the US as A3 thanks to a dispute with the state-named country group) were all but forgotten until being discovered by The Sopranos. The rest, as they say, would have been history, only the band couldn't capitalize on that success.

The debut is brilliant and shambolic. Owing huge debts to both Hank Williams (who gets namechecked on the John Prine cover "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,") and Happy Mondays, A3's loose, funny "country acid house music" offered a blast of fresh air at the tail end of grunge. Hiding behind pseudonyms (The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love, The Mountain of Love, Sir Real "Congaman" Love, etc.) and offering faux-gospel revival shoutouts, the band simply sounds like none of its contemporaries. Equal parts Brit-pop, country rock and church music (if a church that worships drugged-out rock and roll exists, that is), Exile on Coldharbour Lane is a great album. From "Peace in the Valley" to the good-natured single "Aint Goin' to Goa" and the drunken sing-along "The Old Purple Tin," A3 was clearly headed places. (The CD was originally issued as a double containing a bonus disc containing seven remixes.)

The band attracted little attention until a music coordinator at The Sopranos noticed the Coldharbour track "Woke Up This Morning" ("You woke up this morning / Got yourself a gun") and made it the show's theme music in 1999. That sinister media pairing brought sudden fame to A3. Yet, they failed to take advantage of it. Signed to a new label and enjoying a higher profile, they made La Peste, a disappointing disgrace of an album. Forgoing the hedonistic in-jokes of the debut, La Peste makes a mess of "Mansion on the Hill," offers a pointless cover of "Hotel California" and delivers the preachy, apparently serious "Cocaine (Killed My Community)." Only the slinky-slick "Too Sick to Pray" is worth hearing. Lacking the debut's memorable songwriting and sloppy Americana tributes, the new, gussied-up A3 (designed, perhaps, not to offend Sopranos fans) is merely overproduced and out of ideas.

[Jason Reeher]