Richard Buckner has quietly entrenched himself as an indescribable art-country powerhouse, capable of producing devastating power with just a weary warble. After the dissolution of an ill-fitting major-label deal–which produced the outstanding albums Devotion + Doubt and its more rock-oriented follow-up Since, but which didn't serve either party's aims–Buckner has eased into a looser, more experimental career, independently releasing The Hill (a beautiful acoustic interpretation of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology) and the electrified new Impasse. The latter retains The Hill's shambling, fragmented quality, tucking brief interludes among more conventionally structured rock songs. The net result is as compelling as should be expected by now, with "(a year ahead)...& a light" and "count me in on this one!" ranking among Buckner's strongest, catchiest, and most inexplicably titled rock excursions. Slated for reissue shortly after Impasse, the singer's Chicago-based independent label is releasing a fine companion piece: a self-titled, frequently out-of-print collection of 1996 demos that had primarily been sold as a tour souvenir. No mere fans-only oddity, Richard Buckner further exposes the raw, nervy beauty at the center of his sound. Nine of the disc's 11 songs would be fleshed out to unforgettable effect on Devotion + Doubt (the other two made their way onto Since), but hearing them at their unadorned essence only magnifies their power. Buckner has always been a fearlessly direct, unabashedly emotional performer, and stripping away his accouterments only reveals how sturdy his vulnerable songs really are.

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