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Our critics' picks in new releases

Crystal meth freaks aren't usually celebrated in bluegrass. But Michael Holland has never worried much about holding with tradition. Nobody could ever figure out what his and brother Mark's band Jennyanykind was about. "Blues psychedelia" was about as close as anybody ever came to classifying it, and that might have been good for only about two or three minutes.

Even though Michael's gone more or less solo, classifying his output hasn't gotten any easier. On his latest, Tomorrow's American Treasures, Holland's view of American treasures is slightly skewed, which makes for some interesting musical collages. Holland thinks of himself as a poet, but you won't find his works alongside Rod McKuen. He prefers to chronicle the edgier side of life, as "Crystal Meth Freak from California," the opening cut on Tomorrow's American Treasures, exemplifies.

Big Fat Gap is the backing band, but if you're expecting their usual high and lonesome style, you're in for a surprise. The traditional bluegrass band is traveling incognito for this session. They're more or less themselves on "Meth Freak," burbling along quietly in the background while Holland recounts the tale of a twitchy road dog. But then Holland cuts loose in the middle with an organ solo that sounds like an outtake from a Doors session. Mixed all together, it sounds like something from the early Dead days.

Gap bassist Robert Michener says the record was assembled from unrehearsed Gap jams that Holland took snippets of and looped together. But even when the Gap and Holland share the same stage live, it changes the tone of both of their sounds. Once again on "Mountains of the Moon," the Gap is playing straight ahead bluegrass, but Holland overlays his own Steve Forbert soundalike vocal over the mix for a sound more lonesome folk than bluegrass. Then, when it's time for organ, the complexion of the song changes again, coming out like Wallflowers pop.

From the title it sounds like it should be a blues song, but "Nobody Loves Me, Nobody Cares" resembles an early Dead session, sitting around the campfire thumping along with the drum circle when The Band's Garth Hudson stumbles in and swells things up on organ. "Hungry Days" is country Springsteen, the boss howlin' in the woods.

Holland's views of the landscape aren't what everyone else sees, but his vision is always worth a look. Just make sure before viewing you have some protection with you--for your heart, not your eyes.

Michael Holland with the Big Fat Gap play a CD release party for Tomorrow's American Treasures at the Cave on Friday, Nov. 4. Holland also plays Fuse solo on Thursday, Nov. 3.

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Latest in MUSIC: Soundbite

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