Hurts so good

Kelly Hogan does the bummer songs.

KELLY HOGAN WITH SCOTT MILLER AND EVANGELINE

Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $8 9 p.m. Wed., Nov. 7

REMEMBER THAT record you played endlessly when your high-school sweetheart dumped you, till your parents begged to you stop? There is nothing more beautiful than the Bummer Song, a three-act tragedy condensed into two minutes, 45 seconds. And Because It Feels Good (Bloodshot Records), the third full-length from Kelly Hogan, is teeming with them.

"I took this writing class with Lynda Barry this summer," recalls the singer from her Chicago home. "'Why is it that we play the Bummer Song over and over?'" the writer-cartoonist asked one day. "She said you're always carrying around this intangible, shapeless feeling. And when you get that good Bummer Song, it can take that shape for a while. And it's such a good feeling that [the sadness] has a shape, and that's why you can wear the song out. You can play it too much, and then [the shape] goes away."

It is a credit to Hogan's voice- a smoldering mix of sweetness and sinew that evokes comparisons to Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry-and her interpretive skill that her reading of the Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo" still holds its shape. But while that song from last year's Beneath the Country Underdog garnered all the attention, it was her heart-stopping version of Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe That You're Gone" that unmasked the former Jody Grind thrush as alt-country's Sob Sister No. 1.

"The first time a piece of music ever made me cry was in the car," the Georgia native remembers. "It was third or fourth grade. We were moving to Douglasville, outside of Atlanta—which will make you cry anyway—and Nilsson's 'Without You' came on the radio. I was thinking about my boyfriend, who was moving to Baltimore, and I got scared and kind of freaked out."

Fortunately, despite a program that includes "Please Don't Leave Me Lonely," "(You Don't Know) the First Thing About Blue," and, yes, "Without You," the making of Because It Feels Good didn't send anyone into therapy. Au contraire, the April sessions in Athens, Ga., were markedly relaxed. "I just promised [the musicians] Dixie springtime and some Wiffle ball and my mom's cooking, and got 'em all down South."

The pace below the Mason-Dixon Line took some by surprise. "Rob Miller from Bloodshot came down to do some mixing, at my invite," she recalls. "I think it kind of wigged him out at first that me and [co-producer] David Barbe would talk about baseball for a couple hours before we'd even do anything . . . not realizing that that's part of the Southern process."

The fact that Hogan's sidemen, who include violinist Andrew Bird and pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse, split their time between their own bands and accompanying colleagues like Neko Case meant the recording of Hogan's renditions of songs written by Smog, King Floyd, and Charlie Rich (plus two originals) was fairly impromptu. "We didn't really have time to do demos or think about arrangements," she confesses.

"The Statler Brothers cover ["I'll Go to My Grave Loving You"], that was the first time we ever played it. We heard a snippet of it in the Georgia mountains late one night on tour last year and said, 'We should do that song.'" And that was the extent of the preparation. "We did that one take, and I was like, 'OK, that's it. I don't want us to know it any better than that.'"

Outside commitments mean Hogan is touring with just Rauhouse and bassist Mike Sturgess this time around, but that's scarcely cause for concern. "Those two guys play 14 things apiece. It's gonna be all intimate and shit," she concludes. "We're co-headlining with Scott Miller, so by the time we get to Seattle, I'm going to see if I can appropriate some of his men. I have my evil plan. I'll bake a bunch of pies."

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