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Michael and the Lonesome Playboys

Last of the Honky Tonks – 2011 (Blackwater)

Reviewed by Don Armstrong

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"I am the last country western star," Michael Ubaldini sings in The Last Honky Tonk, the rousing opening number on his similarly named new CD. That's hardly the case, though he may indeed be one of the purest, down to the nasal delivery that seems a downright relic.

There's nothing new here, and Ubaldini would presumably take that as a compliment. What "Last of the Honky Tonks" lacks in innovation it makes up for in uniformly solid arrangements, performance and writing - all 14 cuts' worth by Ubaldini. Deserving though the final baker's dozen may be, Ubaldini's joyous paean to his venue of choice and its distinctive namesake genre sucks up one's affection, thanks in rough order to drummer Mickey "Sticks" Wieland's crashing, driving beat; Gary Brandin's sassy Dobro; Ubaldini's soulful vocals; and the song's unapologetically straight-to-the-Buck Owens-heart vocabulary. Buck was never this happy, though.

Owens allegedly boosted the treble on his guitar to shred speakers and create the legendary Bakersfield sound. Ubaldini, who hails from Fountain Valley, 130 miles down the California coast, updates Owens's methods by recording on analog tap, with the hiss left in in the opening of Selfish Heart, a bluesy, midtempo number in which Ubaldini is at his note-bending best. In Highway Ghost, he takes it all the way down, lamenting life's "elusive dreams," before summarizing his message in the not-so-succinctly-titled My Liver's Bad - My Life's a Mess (and I Blame You Sweetheart.

"Our love I clearly have misunderstood," his sad-sack protagonist sings to an unreliable lover from his perch atop a barstool. "When the rooster crows I hear your key unlock the door." No one has marched a straighter line down the country road since David Allan Coe's contrived final verse in You Never Even Called Me By My Name. Fresh? No. Fun? No question.