Sparse and smoky, dusky and pure–that’s the mantra of neotraditionalists and contemporary folksingers. But though that balance is easy to try for, it’s hard to achieve, and technically flawless but emotionally DOA records litter the pop landscape. What you hear in the spaces between the notes on Deanna Varagona’s solo debut, Tangled Messages (Star Star Stereo), is the sound of them crunching under the combat boots she sports–along with a necklace and nothing else–in the tray-card photo. (Think of it as a little reward for playing the CD, sort of like the ceramic teddy bear at the bottom of a kid’s milk mug.) Varagona, a talented multi-instrumentalist, has spent years as a sidewoman and collaborator, most famously with the Nashville-based country-and-the-kitchen-sink outfit Lambchop and also with Vic Chesnutt and Chris Mills, but here she emerges as a strong musical personality in her own right. She knows exactly when to step into a song and when to just haunt it, and the attention she lavishes on every nuance of her layered but uncluttered arrangements makes the listener aware of them too. The various guest musicians–Charles Kim contributes eerie electric guitar sounds to the opening cut, “In Deep,” and Mills makes a duet of “Goodbye Kiss”–aren’t extraneous by any stretch, but Varagona can raise goose bumps with no help from anybody, as when she breaks into a holler approaching Tuvan throat singing on the skeletal graveyard blues “Take My Shovel.” For this CD-release party, she’ll be backed by Kim on guitar, Steve Dorocke on pedal steel and mandolin, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes and keyboards, Jimmy Olsen on drums, Jeb Bishop on trombone, and Jim and Stacey Earley on vocals; Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts headline. Thursday, August 24, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. Varagona will also perform a short set of originals and covers by women who’ve inspired her as part of “The Girl’s Got Rhythm,” a benefit for WLUW FM, this Friday, August 18, at 9 PM at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia; 773-227-4433. MONICA KENDRICK