A Dose of Subversive Alternative Country

The casual-sounding, folk-based music played by the Lincoln, Neb., band Lullaby for the Working Class doesn't have a lot of overt inner tension. So when singer Ted Stevens drops a line like "Honey, please put the knife away" into a shambling, string-band setting, the effect is surprising and subversive.

At the Largo on Wednesday, the five musicians faced the challenge of expanding on the promise of their recent debut album, "Blanket Warm" (on the Bar/None label), a record that quietly asserts the group's significance in the fluid, still-forming genre often known as alternative country.

Its mix of the folk-country-rock identified with such bands as Wilco, "Exile on Main Street"-era Stones and the "sad-core" mood-music spearheaded by American Music Club is compelling on the record, where mature, distinctive songwriting merges with a rich musical vision.

At the Largo, that music didn't quite gain its full breadth, and Stevens' vocals didn't have the vulnerability, flexibility and Jagger-like stretches they do on record. In fact, his delivery seemed slightly stiff, going from gentle to full force without the intervening emotional calibrations that can make it so compelling.

But Stevens' concentration and intensity anchored the music and commanded respect. Because it was important to him, it was important to his listeners, who responded attentively to Lullaby's bittersweet anthems--negotiations over pain and guilt, searches for the light, epiphanies discovered in the plainest places.

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