The Silos, When the Telephone Rings (Dualtone, 2004)
Jonathan Rundman, Public Library (Salt Lady, 2004)
John Brannen, The Good Thief (Sly Dog, 2004)
David Simpkins, Long Story Short (self-produced, 2004)

Roots rock is a slippery category, covering acts as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger as well as Marah and the Ass Ponys. It springs from the heartland, from the South, and even New York, as these diverse releases from the second half of 2004 attest.

The Silos have been making roots rock since before it was even called that. It was 1985 when Walter Salas-Humara formed the Silos shortly after moving to New York from Florida. Their debut album, 1987's Cuba, influenced many bands in the movement that became alt-country a few years later.

When the Telephone Rings finds Salas-Humara making rich pop-influenced rock with guitarist Drew Glackin and drummer Konrad Meissner, plus assistance from original Silos member Mary Rowell, who plays violin and fiddle on a few tracks. This album finds Salas-Humara in an introspective mood, epitomized by the title track, an homage to terror-torn New York City: "Chilling autumn rains/make curtain skyscrapers/more beautiful to see / With the water dripping / I wish somehow I could wash / this perishing world."

New York alt-country singer Amy Allison contributes harmonies on a couple of tracks, including the opening anthem "The Only Love." And alt-rocker Mary Lee Kortes (of Mary Lee's Corvette) adds her supporting vocals to a couple more, including the uplifting "Holding on to Life." Stay tuned for the hidden track, a one-minute snippet of a children's choir singing the chorus to this one: "Dancing along with your head held high / holding on to life!"

The Silos form the backing band for Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jonathan Rundman on his new release on his own label, Public Library, but the albums could hardly be any different. Rundman's disc is a collection of hook-filled sunny folk-pop that explores the wonders of brainy girls, big jets, small towns, librarians and, of all things, church architecture. With a reedy tenor that could be mistaken for Freedy Johnston (except the songs he sings aren't depressing) and lyrics that the Barenaked Ladies, Cake or They Might Be Giants would be proud to claim, Rundman's recording should make plenty of Top 10 lists this year.

"Smart Girls" is the first single on Public Library, an earnest tribute to girls with brains: "They know the human heart, 'cause love is science, and love is art." "Narthex" is a poppy love song that uses church architecture as a setting, revealing Rundman as a songwriter who is as much in love with words as with ideas. The third verse paints a vivid picture of people lining up for communion: "Everyone forms two parallel lines / moving up close to the front / steadily crossing the transept / flowing like blood through a heart..."

The loping rockabilly "747s" uses simple internal rhymes to compare falling in love to the giddy sensation of watching a jumbo jet take off. Silo Drew Glackin contributes baritone guitar and lap steel to this hot rocker, which is followed immediately by the shambling bluesy slow rocker "Almost Never See," with lovely violin from Rowell and resonator guitar from Glackin.

Elsewhere, Rundman finds metaphor for love in "Cuban Missile Crisis," echoes every traveling musician's complaint in "Every Town's the Same," and pays tribute to those upholders of the Constitution, librarians: "I bring order out of chaos, I shine light into the dark / because power comes from knowledge just like fire from a spark ... I'm a librarian / and I do it for the love of the word."

Public Library is not all lighthearted pop, though. In "Park River Bridge," a man looks back on his survival of what may have been a suicide attempt. And in "Second Language," Rundman paints a vivid but subdued picture of a young female immigrant's experience: "When I wake up I speak my second language / I speak my second language when I catch my train / I work all day, I speak my second language..."

John Brannen's The Good Thief mixes country, blues and southern rock to good effect. With a gravelly tenor that could be compared to Ray Wylie Hubbard's, he has put down a dozen tracks that range from southern gothic rockers to mid-tempo folk rock and New Orleans-style swamp rock.

The album opens on a strong note with "Witches Rain," a swampy blue-eyed soul number full of spooky strings and ooh-oohing backing vocals. Brannen betrays a fondness for big anthemic choruses on songs like "Summer In Savannah," and for gospel-inflected soul on tracks like "When I'm Satisfied" and "Waiting," with lots of soaring Hammond B3 sound. Things wind down toward the end, with the lovely, tender acoustic love song "The Lonely Side of Love," and the soft-rock ballad, "Learning to Dance." The stripped-down but soulful rendition of "Amazing Grace" as a hidden final track redeems some of the gothic excesses.

David Simpkins is a heartland folkie with the urge to rock. In his self-produced Long Story Short, he sings a song cycle that draws on his family's stories, interpreted through his somewhat melancholy lens. He has a craggy voice and sings in a rough and emotive style that sounds a bit like Billy Joe Shaver's.

Though these songs are acoustic-based, they're fleshed out with lots of electric guitar, bass and drums, plus a healthy dose of the swelling Hammond B3 organ. The dozen tracks lean mostly toward mid-tempo rockers, with a couple of slower, softer ballads. A highlight is "After Glory," a Dylanesque fast shuffle with Simpkins on harmonica and some nice flat-picked guitar and banjo. "All Because of You" has a swampy groove and dissonant, jagged electric guitars, and tells the tale of a gambler at love. The opening track, "Something New," is particularly strong, an internal dialogue between a young man and an old man. And the album ends on another strong note, the slow-burning rocker "Lighthouse," with atmospheric touches from piano, bass and cello.

[Gary Whitehouse]