Tractor Tavern at 8 p.m.
Wed., March 31 with Rosie Thomas. $12.
Josh Ritter was already being hailed as the next Dylan before he graduated from college. On his first two albums, Ritter coined snappy similes on the fly, told sad, funny stories, and built up his melodic chops. (His instinct for lyrics emerged fully honed, it seems.) But the new Welcome Starling (Signature Sounds) is less funny, less risky, less lyrically dense, and less free. The geographic sensualism of "Bad Actress" ("Her eyes are big as Canada/And the hips are South Australia/And the shoulder blade is Africa," etc.) feels like lazy work from the man who once compared unrequited love to photosynthesis. Still, Ritter's prodigious talent isn't exactly on holiday. "Bone of Song" offers a stirring meditation on the life cycle of the folk musician: "Leave me here/I care not for wealth or fame/I'll remember your song/but I'll forget your name." Ritter's nods to the legends whose ranks he aims for are even more successful "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" is unabashedly Dylan-esque ("Oh the heart has no bones you say/So it won't break/But the purpose of loving is the pounding it takes"), while "Rainslicker" is pure Joan Baez circa "Diamonds and Rust." Ritter might be heeding Dylan's ultimate mantra—don't look back—with Starling's cleaner sound and broader themes, but it's hard not to miss the quirky premises he trades in for them. NEAL SCHINDLER
Tractor Tavern at 8:30 p.m.
Wed., April 7. $13.
Though they're guilty of the reactionary ideological conservatism that sinks every second alt-country outfit these days, these indefatigable Music City honky-tonkers have avoided smug musical tedium for nearly a decade. On Tangled in the Pines, the Nashville band's fourth studio album and first for indie label DualTone, they accomplish that trick the best (and perhaps only?) way they know how—by winding their shit so tight it never drags long enough to remind you of how instantly thrilling Shania Twain's records can be. The preferred tempo is a steady gallop: opener "That's What I Get," which singer Chuck Mead co-wrote with main Maverick Raul Malo, bounces along on drummer Shaw Wilson's gentle lockstep, guitarist Chris Scruggs' lead carving out a careful counterpoint to Mead's vocal. And when Scruggs insists that "I've gotta go on living 'cause I ain't got time to die" in "Ain't Got Time," bassist Geoff Firebaugh's insistent walking line convinces you he's right. But even the ballads invite you to take a seat and admire more than the furniture, as in "She's Talking to Someone (She's Not Talking to Me)," where Don Herron's mandolin flourishes give Mead's bluesy walkin'-after-midnight a delicate tiki-bar glow. "You'll never know that I always try to do things right," Scruggs complains at one point. Yeah, yeah, yeah—the plight of the country music traditionalist. But there's more here than that. MIKAEL WOOD
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at 7:30 p.m.
Mon., April 5. $45-$80.
Only a man who's had panties thrown at him onstage for decades could get away with releasing a single called "Tom Jones International." The man has a point: A simple Google search has the sweaty heartthrob from Wales kicking the lily-white ass of his 18th-century literary namesake, the lusty hero of Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Thomas Jones Woodward is 64 today, though you'd never know it from the spray-tanned, randy-looking visage leering at you from the alarming www.tomjones.com. When I first heard the breakout single from Reload, his 2000 covers album, I was a college junior in Spain for a semester of, um, "foreign study." My real education that semester came in the form of pop music, and Jones' "Sexbomb," the most blatantly sexual song he's ever recorded (which is saying a lot), was blasting out of every club I went to. Clearly, "The Voice" really was an international phenomenon; his libido alone seemed to span the Atlantic with ease. From "It's Not Unusual" in 1965 to the questionable songs on 2002's Mr. Jones (sing along, children: "One, two/Tom's coming for you/Five, six/You better lock up your chicks"), Jones wears the pop-crooner mantle with more cornball aplomb than anyone else on earth. It takes ten bowls of Rod Stewart to equal just one bowl of Tom Jones; if you're going to the show and you're female, wear exciting underwear. You'll need it. NEAL SCHINDLER