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Richard Buckner: The Hill

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With his ragged voice and tendency to radically evolve his sound on each release, Richard Buckner isn't exactly staring rock stardom in the face. But he's one of the most gifted and expressive singers and songwriters of the last 10 years, finding artistic (if not commercial) success with bleak but beautiful records such as Bloomed and the incomparable Devotion + Doubt. After a detour through somewhat more conventionally structured rock (1998's Since), Buckner lost his major-label deal, returning with The Hill, an unusual concept album based on some of the fictional epitaphs in Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 poetry collection Spoon River Anthology. Sketching out details of harrowing and desolate lives is Buckner's specialty anyway, so it's no surprise how deeply satisfying The Hill is, using disquieting instrumentals ("Elmer Karr," "Fletcher McGee") to flesh out magnificent free-standing songs ("Elizabeth Childers," "Emily Sparks") and bone-chilling a cappella fragments ("Ollie McGee"). Buckner is aided in no small measure by Calexico members and prolific sidemen Joey Burns and John Convertino, who know their way around moody atmosphere, enriching The Hill with a warm feeling that nicely balances out its vague sense of dread. (Overcoat Records, 3831 N. Christiana, Chicago, IL 60618)