Cindy Lee Berryhill

Beloved Stranger

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Two decades after her moment in the sun as an anti-folk chanteuse and setting aside the engaging homegrown chamber pop of her Garage Orchestra album (at least for the time being), Cindy Lee Berryhill returns with a set of what she calls "anti-country" with her fifth studio album, Beloved Stranger. The "anti-country" moniker fits this music well enough -- much as anti-folk was about capturing the immediacy and spirit of folk without the trappings that had come to weigh it down, these songs focus on the home truths and rootsy textures of country music while rejecting the slick surfaces and jingoistic attitudes that have been polluting Nashville product in recent decades. On tunes like "Forty Cent Raise" and "When Did Jesus Become a Republican," Berryhill embraces a real-word populist leftism that confronts the sins of the George W. Bush administration with a wholly appropriate working-class disgust, while not losing touch with Berryhill's sense of humor along the way. "Make Way for the Handicapped" performs a similar function for the disabled (you're a lot less likely to use a handicapped space without a permit after hearing it), and while there isn't much of a larger message to "Bars, Booze and Boysclubs," "Cry Me a Jordan," and "Hugs and Kisses," there's a folky honesty and rough-hewn wisdom in these tunes that recalls what country can and should be when it's good. Berryhill hasn't stopped exploring different angles in her music, such as the fractured pop of "Unexpected Packages" and "Plenty Enough" and the funky neo-hip-hop groove of "Where Are They Now," and the warm West Coast twang of her voice, the sturdy beauty of her melodies, and the unfussy strength of her arrangements (which include performances by John Doe, Peter Case, and Dave Alvin) make Beloved Stranger a low-key delight -- anyone who lost track of her music after her cult-favorite debut, Who's Gonna Save the World?, owes it to themselves to give this a thorough listen.

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