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Blue-Collar Chroniclers Keep On Keepin’ On

Eric Church spends approximately half his new album—Chief (Capitol), his third—hungover. Generally he’s been drinking while watching some gal’s taillights disappear, maybe because she’s deduced he’s yearning to head down the highway himself. In one number, she gets a rock, so he’s getting stoned. In another, he’s been known to throw a few punches—hell, he just picked a fight with that cowboy hoggin’ the filly he wanted to two-step with a few songs before—but Jack Daniel’s kicks his ass.

So big deal, right? Scores of country singers have been addicted to their own alcoholism, and most lust for a good woman who’ll overlook their wanderlust. “She believes in me like she believes her Bible,” the 34-year-old North Carolinan swears in one of two Chief tracks with “Jesus” in their titles. Sinners Like Me, his 2006 debut was called; in the half-decade since, he’s reached country’s Top 20 seven times, which sounds impressive but still makes him a B-level Nashville commodity.

Chief, like Church’s other work, walks the line between hard Southern boogie and softie singer-songster sap, but with plenty of chug. The opener, “Creepin’,” really does creep—marsh-gas powerchords thickening as its almost robotic pulse propels, vocals simulating bells, an actual rhythmic breakdown introduced as such. “Keep On,” the cowboy-brawl number, swings hard, with Eric channeling the great ’70s honky-tonker Gary Stewart in his high register. To an earlier generation, guitars in both that one and “Country Music Jesus” would’ve passed for metal. And then there’s “Homeboy,” 2011’s most ethically confused and probably best country hit, an incessantly clanking folk-to-noise droner wherein Church advises a Yelawolf-like younger brother to stop dressing hip-hop, and stay on the farm and out of jail. The implication is that an unadventurous life is the good life. Also, that rap is bad news.

Not bad news? “Springsteen,” of course! That’s a song title—Eric reminiscing Kenny Chesney–style on teen-romance glory days every time he hears “Born to Run.” He never gets much Bruce into his music, though—or at least, not as much as seemingly nicer guy Randy Montana gets into the big-drummed Cadillac Ranch thump of “It’s Gone” on his new self-titled debut (Mercury Nashville); by song’s end, Randy’s even lamenting his Shreveport job being outsourced to Mexico. Randy’s album’s finale, “Assembly Line,” wears a bluer collar than Bruce has during the 25 years Randy’s been alive, and doubles as a sneaky critique of Nashville’s music biz: “building products made to sell, moving on a conveyor belt.” Albany-born Randy’s dad, Billy, see, was a Northeastern songwriter who moved to Tennessee to peddle hits, which gives Randy precisely the same pedigree as Robert Ellis Orrall’s kids in current indie-hypester duo Jeff the Brotherhood. Hmmm.

He’s also allegedly a former All-Tennessee quarterback who switched to soccer at football-free Trevecca Nazarene University, weird. And he opened a bunch of non-Southern Taylor Swift dates in June. Whatever … I’ve already played Randy Montana more than any other new album in country-deficient 2011, partly for the two songs just named but also for 1) the vertigo verses and round-like layered rhyme scheme of No. 37 country hit “1,000 Faces”; 2) the California duskiness and perfume-induced memories Randy can’t drink away in No. 36 country hit “Ain’t Much Left of Lovin’ You”; 3) the conflicted conscience and charred edges of transcendent temptation lesson “Burn These Matches”; and 4) the freight-train forward motion, Tom Petty 12-string jangle, and expansive instrumental bridges of the stretched-to-five-minutes “It Ain’t Hit Me Yet.” What hasn’t hit Randy yet, naturally, is “her being gone and the alcohol.” Hey, maybe he and Eric oughta share some whiskey.

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Southern Soul Guide: Sweet Angel, Mel Waiters, and Luther Lackey

A Memphis insurance agent and mother of two with a “sturdy build, big thighs, big hips,” a feather boa, and minimal platinum-blonde hair was behind one of 2010’s best singles, reminiscing about being 25 and having a crush on a big-time Southern Soul singer named Bobby Rush. For “A Girl Like Me,” Sweet Angel borrows the incessant, repetitive, knee-deep funk vamp Rush once used on “Sue,” a stuttering extended tease from 1982 about being deflowered as a teenager. Around 1990 or so, if her song is to be believed, Sweet Angel applied to be one of Rush’s dancing girls. He told her she was too young, so she tried again 10 years later — at 35 — “Ohhh, yeah, that’s a good age.” But 155 pounds? “Too little.” Eventually, her singing career takes off instead. She opens for Rush in Mississippi. “You look like one of my dancing girls,” he finally concedes. “You just ain’t got no hair.” Halfway through the song’s six minutes, her talking switches to singing, and her register drops to a gloating growl.

Sweet Angel — real name, Clifetta Dobbins — is now 46. Which, in Southern Soul, still makes her a sweet young thing. Bobby Rush himself was born in Louisiana before World War II, played with Elmore James in the mid-’50s, and wields a deep-fried ham-hock drawl that’s still going strong: “Night Fishin’,” from 2005, even spawned a stack of answer records. Denise LaSalle is 71 — her one pop hit, “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” came and went in 1971 — but in 2010 she scored on Southern Soul’s chitlin circuit with “Older Woman,” about how aging improved her bedroom technique (“Like a Whirlpool, I got different speeds”), so now she’s looking for a younger man who can keep up. Dirty old Bobby Rush, “over 72,” actually gets the final word on that song. But 54-year-old, white-haired Texan Mel Waiters, probably Southern Soul’s biggest name these days (he even plays up north sometimes), opts out of the competition on 2010’s “I Ain’t Gone Do It”: “Ain’t one of them young boys make you scream and shout/You gonna mess me around and make me throw my back out!”

That this self-branded “grown folks music” still flourishes, in an age when mainstream r&b has increasingly become the juvenile province of Beavises babbling about “boobies,” is some kind of miracle. Black music, as Nelson George pointed out throughout his 1988 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, was largely an adult commodity in the time of adolescent rock ‘n’ roll. But hip-hop changed that forever, and disco-era assimilation dreams had already begun to sever r&b from the local economics of black communities. When George wrote a 1983 Voice roundup of soul journeymen Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, and Z.Z. Hill — aged 45, 45, and 43 at the time — they were already considered anachronistic relics by major labels too coastal to care, even though raspy Texan Hill’s indie label Down Home was then blindsiding Northeastern provincials by staying on Billboard‘s black album chart for almost two years. The piece was titled “Till the Day They Die,” as George deduced that middle-aged black men “with no skills other than singing, dancing, and guitar picking” have few financial alternatives other than to keep plugging away until they’re gone. And that’s pretty much what this trinity did — Hill passed in 1984, Taylor in 2000, Davis in 2005.

Where they live on is in recent Southern Soul songs, where they’re frequently name-checked as patron saints. Malaco, the grassroots Jackson, Mississippi, company that resuscitated all three singers’ careers — and old-school soul itself — in the ’80s and ’90s, is still around, too, though it’s widely diversified into Christian and catalog items. Daddy B. Nice, whose website at SouthernSoulRnB.com indispensably chronicles/reviews/aggregates the subculture from the inside, pegs the dominant imprints now, in terms of promoting new talent, as Ecko in Memphis (founded by Malaco expat John Ward, who produces everything and runs the studio) and Carlsbad, California, concern CDS, where New Orleans–via-Nashville vet and former Neville Brothers sideman Carl Marshall has become integral to the creative mix. Other, even tinier companies — in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana — fill in holes.

These labels will never challenge the overpowering studio bands of Deep Soul’s heyday; Ecko albums inevitably credit Ward with “rhythm tracks,” and the arrangements are consistently functional if infrequently ingenious. The spotlight is on the singers, who almost inevitably partake in a church-testifying richness and grit that r&b otherwise abandoned in favor of icy detachment and empty melisma decades ago. In eternal blues-and-country storytelling tradition, the songwriting can get formulaic, especially as themes rework into memes: Lots of cheating-with-your-best-friend’s-spouse songs, advice from all fronts of the monogamy wars, easy oral-sex jokes way less shocking than they pretend (those the specialty of Marvin “Candy Licker” Sease, who died at 65 in early February), and slides/steps/shuffles/spanks for the family reunion. The CD packaging looks endearingly cut-rate, and quality control often yields to quantity-of-product — Alabama romancer Sir Charles Jones might be blessed with the millennium’s most luscious late-night baritone, but his 2010 Mardi Gras Records all-covers set seemed mostly perfunctory.

What’s amazing is how much of this music transcends its limitations: Gerod Rayborn’s October release Call Before You Come!!! — backed by what sounds like a full band, and featuring several men and women sharing Rayborn’s last name — is as intense a marriage-soul battle as any since mid-’80s Womack & Womack. Who’s Rockin’ You, the new Ecko 10-songer from 51-year-old Texas smoothie Donnie Ray, as soakable a quiet-storm-throwback bubblebath as the latest (quite good) albums by El Debarge or R. Kelly — neither of which is any more verbally distinctive, neither of which can touch Ray’s most sugar-sweet beach-soul hooks. That Thang Thang, out in late 2010 from Ray’s more huskily shouting and alcohol-obsessed Clarksdale, Mississippi, labelmate O.B. Buchana, is funkier, funnier, and even catchier, with an excellent Bobby Womack cover and a focus track where a couple expend equal energy fighting and fucking.

The Preacher’s Wife, last year’s unusually lovely and thoughtful album by Buchana’s brother, Luther Lackey, who writes his own songs and clearly draws inspiration from country and gospel as well as Sam Cooke, made my Pazz & Jop Top 10; belatedly, so did the self-released mid-2009 Jerri Curl Muzik by Bigg Robb, a prolific graduate of Ohio’s talkbox-funk scene who Southern Soul partisans have accepted despite the fact that he doesn’t exactly sing — guests like Carl Marshall and Shirley Murdock and “Larry from the Floaters” mostly do that for him — and his deluge of lengthy albums revolve around a Gap Band/Cameo default setting. That’s as trendy as this genre gets: Robb learned his trade from Zapp’s Roger Troutman, and Kurtis Blow raps on Jerri Curl. So caveat emptor, if “datedness” bugs you.

Give or take the occasional flicker on lower rungs of the blues or “urban adult” chart, this stuff barely registers on Billboard anymore. But to me, it still feels like 2011 anyway, and presumably it also does to the primarily working-class, baby-boomer Southern black crowds who pack outskirts-of-town roadhouses and Elks Lodges every weekend — and arena package tours and state-park picnic spots every spring and summer — to watch these artists. Mom-and-pop record stores and local radio (some stations, like WMPR in Jackson, Mississippi, now Web-streamable) get the word out. And if the national recession and music-biz depression have wreaked havoc on both small neighborhood businesses and the lives of the fans who rely on them, Southern Soul doesn’t whitewash hard times, either. Luther Lackey croons about clipping coupons and shopping at yard sales and shining shoes when unemployment turns permanent. Bigg Robb, who like Lackey sometimes comes off like a small-town minister consoling his down-and-out flock, keeps the party going even when he can’t afford to go to the mall. Mel Waiters does “Everything’s Going Up (But My Paycheck)”; Sweet Angel does “I Like The Money But I Don’t Like the Job,” about keeping her daughters fed. “I Lived It All,” Carl Marshall’s 60-years-on look back at his impoverished youth, will tear your heart a new ventricle. One of my favorite 2009 singles was the hilarious plea-to-Obama “I Need a Bailout,” by Austin’s CDBaby-distributed Larry Shannon Hargrove. This ain’t no VIP Room — the action takes place at holes in the wall, or even VFW halls. Somehow, the singers stay good-humored about it.

And I’m sorry, but Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar” — to pick a better-than-average example of the alleged retro-soul typically embraced in indie-adult-alternative circles these days — sounds, in comparison, like the tastefully antiseptic HBO theme it is. And if the museum embalmers at Anti- Records hadn’t Anglicized them into arugula suitable to dour and delicate Wilco sensibilities, Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette could maybe still sound half as alive as, say, the call-in-advice-show title-talker on Rubenesque raunch queen Ms. Jody’s doubly horny new Ecko album, Keepin’ It Real. If you’re into Sharon Jones or Cee-Lo dressing up vintage, that’s your choice. But if so, you really owe it to yourself to acknowledge a thriving world where soul music, as originally understood, never stopped being vital — where it’s something more than mannerisms reverently simulated from a distance. A place where, as Bigg Robb would say, you can still smell chicken, catfish, and pork chops all cooking in the same grease.

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Jamey Johnson Sprawls Out

Here are some things you’ll find on Jamey Johnson’s new album: Three songs (“Lonely at the Top,” “Poor Man Blues,” “Can’t Cash My Checks”) explicitly addressing class differences, the last one featuring a verse about harvesting marijuana even more redolent of Weeds than the one on Dierks Bentley’s latest. Two songs (“California Riots,” “Even the Skies Are Blue”) that warn that the world’s real bad and getting worse. Two songs (new single “Playing the Part,” “California Riots” again) about faking it in L.A. while wishing you were back in Alabama, and they just happen to be the most ’70s-Cali-soft-rock-catchy-singer-songwriter things on the record. Three songs (“That’s How I Don’t Love You,” “Good Morning Sunrise,” “My Way to You”) that employ alcohol and other poisons for post-breakup self-medication. Two songs in a row with the phrase “good times” in their titles (“Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “For the Good Times”). And songs sung from the points of view of God (half of “I Remember You”), two pawnshop guitars (title-track novelty “The Guitar Song”), and “Heartache,” which tallies famous folks foiled by said malady throughout history, from cavemen to Antony ‘n’ Cleopatra to Charles ‘n’ Diana. (You know, à la “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or Motörhead’s “Orgasmatron.”)

In case you want to pinpoint where this onetime Marine Reserves E-4 mortarman fits on the historical timeline himself, Johnson also interprets oldies by Ray Price, Mel Tillis, alcohol casualty Keith Whitley, and Vern Gosdin (the latter on “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” a 1988 country No. 1 about repeatedly putting Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” on the jukebox). Which roster, incidentally, shakes out at least as much “countrypolitan” as “outlaw”; “The Guitar Song” itself name-drops Merle, Lefty, Johnny, and Marty Robbins, but Johnson’s duet partner is 72-year-old “Whispering Bill” Anderson, who, three decades ago, made a Barry White–influenced country-disco makeout album—and who is, in turn, mentioned in the very next number, which pays generous tribute to Music City’s songwriters and shouts out to a few, including the late Hank Cochran. But just in case that backdates Johnson too much, there’s also a fairy-tale verse about princes scaring dragons away and saving princesses, concluding a music-box-embellished lullaby apparently directed at his six-year-old daughter—which, who knows, just might be an awkward attempt to keep up with Taylor Swift. And speaking of child-rearing tips, the song that recommends not sparing the rod (“By the Seat of Your Pants”) rivals any such pro-spanking gross-out by Montgomery Gentry. So Johnson has got all his bases covered.

The Guitar Song spreads 25 songs (five of them over five minutes long, one over seven) onto two discs, labeled “Black” and “White,” since the former has marginally darker themes and sonics. (There might also be a White vs. Nonwhite split when Johnson asks, “Where you gonna be when half of California riots?” but he unhelpfully never specifies which half.) The music, at its liveliest, successfully reinvents for studio consumption the tight-but-loose jamming of a working roadhouse band: Johnson’s own Kent Hardly Playboys, in this case, though credits suggest occasional pinch-hitting on the drum stool. Piano and Hammond B-3 set the standard; the only time the guitars get real Dixie-rock distorted is on “Macon,” as in “Macon love all night,” a humid Muscle Shoals–style groover about driving home to Georgia to get laid. And there’s still some of the cavernous gloom-metal atmosphere that bled out the pores of Johnson’s previous album, maybe most noticeably this time in “Heartache,” which echoes and groans like an abandoned asylum deep in the holler, or amid the spacious empty-tavern drift of “My Way to You.” For a country album—country being the one musical genre that never much succumbed to ridiculous CD-era album lengths before the bum digital economy brought economy back—this whole project is way beyond ambitious.

It’s also a case of a self-conscious artist—an Alabama-fan-turned-renegade who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” but whose increasingly serial-murderer-scary mountain-goatee serves as an apt metaphor for his aesthetic re-definition—taking advantage of the situation at hand while he can get away with it. Johnson’s 2008 That Lonesome Song—originally written in backstory-enabling hermit seclusion (beard growth + self-imposed solitude after life-changing breakup + Christgau Dud status = Bon Iver, only good!), then self-released online, then picked up by Mercury in slightly altered form—commercially outdid its considerably more clean-cut 2006 BNA predecessor The Dollar despite being concocted with limited biz-suit oversight. The Guitar Song‘s sprawl alone suggests Mercury gave Johnson something close to free rein. It’s got a few clunkers and slow spots, and, especially given the depressive tempos Johnson’s so fond of, it’s inadvisable to ingest in one sitting. But surprisingly—even without a single track half as monumental or emotionally inescapable as Lonesome‘s “High Cost of Living,” wherein Johnson’s marriage and the GNP fell apart in equally inexorable coke-and-whore measure (in a Southern Baptist parking lot no less, and sobriety proved just one more prison)—Guitar is packed at least as solid as his last set, and it’s less conventional to boot.

For one thing, it doesn’t resort to mere high-grade country-popcorn as often. And for another, Johnson is managing more motion in his hungover doomsday baritone: He’s downplaying his sluggish mid-’70s Waylon Jennings fixation (responsible for two more-or-less-expendable cover versions and one humorous tribute tune last time), a step in the right direction. Which is saying a lot, given that Lonesome was my favorite album of 2008 (it drags more for me recently, but still), not to mention the only album (sorry, TV on the Radio and Lil Wayne!) to finish that year on three of four year-end top 10 lists (Chinen, Pareles, Caramanica) at respected hillbilly circular the New York Times. Lonesome also dominated 2008’s nationwide country critics’ poll at Nashville Scene—No. 1 album, single, male singer, songwriter—and wound up long-tailing in the gold range, sales-wise. Got Grammy-nominated, too. This time out, the sky’s the limit. Unless, as a couple of Guitar Song songs anticipate, the sky falls first.

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The Endtables Emerge At Last

Against all odds, 2010 is shaping up to be a real good year for indie-rock albums. Only thing is, the most exciting ones seem to have been recorded 30 years ago.

Matter of fact, I have 10 such platters piled up here, all released in the past eight months, all but a handful of their tracks put to tape between 1977 and 1983, just when technology was making homemade self-releases feasible—as far as “indie” goes, this was the ground floor. All involve artists based in provincial middle-American ‘burghs and ‘burbs, away from capitals of entertainment and commerce, but only five got entries in 1985’s The New Trouser Press Record Guide. Most selections have never before appeared in album form: They come from long-gone 45s, EPs, cassette compilations, live tapes lost in the backs of closets for decades, fuzzy mobile-rig-recorded demos. Yet almost without exception, they partake in an energy that puts pretty much any new 2010 indie to shame.

For one thing, most still sound like they’re inventing something; they’re operating in a habitat where “alternative” isn’t yet a quarter-century-old marketing concept that’s self-defeating by definition. They also represent a moment—a decade or more before grunge broke—when whatever-modern-music-was-called-then had neither been straitjacketed into slamdance nor ruled out rock-band power, momentum, groove, coherence, and structure as corny and déclassé.

That said, it’s notable that a couple acts—two-man art-funksters the Method Actors and one-man art-popster Kevin Dunn, both identified with the boho college enclave and proto-indie hotbed of Athens, Georgia—had already abandoned the traditional rock-band format. But while Dunn’s No Great Lost: Songs, 1979–1985 (Casa Nueva) features only one track by his mid-’70s Atlanta band the Fans, it still embraces rock ‘n’ roll enough to include insanely fuzztoned covers of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and “Louie Louie” amid all the herky-jerking Eno loopage. The bands that come off most comfortable in their relationship to pre-punk hard rock seem to be ones who were more or less formed by 1977, the year Never Mind the Bollocks came out: suburban Chicago class clowns Tutu and the Pirates; Louisville semi-metal eccentrics the Endtables; Erie, Pennsylvania’s boys’-room smokers Pistol Whip; Akron micro-prog weirdos Tin Huey. Cleveland’s even louder Easter Monkeys didn’t officially initiate their heavy post-punk psych caterwaul until ’81, but guitarist Jim Jones had been perfecting his downer riffs in the Electric Eels and Styrenes almost since the glam days.

The Ohio bands, for what it’s worth, had their own boho college enclave and proto-indie hotbed in post-massacre Kent—particularly nutjob virtuosos and longtime one-album wonders Tin Huey, whose ’78-’79-recorded Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes includes a live Stooges cover for Iggy’s birthday, yet revels in mixed-and-matched time changes, sax blats, and rave-ups owing more to bebop and the Yardbirds (and seemingly Zappa, even if they deny it) than to punk per sé. It was compiled by the remarkably reliable little Chicago label Smog Veil, which also put out Easter Monkeys’ menacing, frequently massive, and (especially when singing about underwear and crucifixion) surprisingly tuneful Splendor of Sorrow, along with Ohio-bordering Pistol Whip’s goofball parking-lot piledriver Terminal. For the latter, think pre-punk punks the Dolls, Stranglers, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, and especially the Dictators; realize that they have songs called “Six More Inches,” “Big Boy,” and “Cock Sure,” and gauge their usefulness in your life accordingly.

I kinda love them, myself. Same goes for the possibly even more Dictators- (and Zappa-, and Mad-) damaged Tutu and the Pirates, cross-dressing cartoons who crack wise about Son of Sam, Nazis, necrobestiality, zits, janitors, disco, and how Darlene won’t give them head on the incidentally hook-laden Sub-Urban Insult Rock for the Anti/Lectual 1977–1979. Legend says Tutu’s crew introduced punk to Chicago, thus oddly paving the way for their current Factory 25 archive-labelmates DaExclamation Point (née Da!), whose lunging repertoire on (Un)Released Recordings 1980–81 is nonetheless considerably less asinine and more angst-ridden, coming as it does from an un-fratty co-ed lineup whose lead yelper, Lorna Donley, sometimes approaches Polly Harvey/Courtney Love territory a decade early.

Donley also, when loosening up a little in Da’s kerosene-pyromaniac (see: Big Black) “The Killer” at least, sounds quite a bit like Vanessa Briscoe Hay from Athens’ Pylon, whose own 1983 sophomore album was recently revived in expanded form as Chomp More (DFA). Pylon, as all hipster schoolchildren know by now, were all about the rhythm: spare clanking drumbeats, repeated guitar figures, and loud staccato chants that somehow anticipate techno and industrial while referencing funk, surf, and railroad blues. Their indelible 1979 debut single “Cool”/”Dub” was co-produced by the aforementioned Kevin Dunn, who also oversaw the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster,” and thus helped invent the new-wave substyle once known for a couple months as “dance-oriented rock.” In that category would also land aforementioned duo the Method Actors, whose fractured ’80-’81 drum/guitar/vocal workouts on This Is Still It (Acute) come off more severe and mannered than Pylon, but manage to click into volcanic reggae-reverberated harmolodics when allotted sufficient space.

Oddly, it was a less syncopative act from that same Athens scene—R.E.M., featuring Method Actors CD liner-noter Peter Buck—whose murmuring jangle really set indie rock on its ultimate path toward introversion. But it didn’t have to turn out that way. In turn-of-the-’80s Kentucky, you might have a band like the Endtables, whose superb self-titled collection on Drag City has their gargantuan transvestite frontman Steve Rigot bleating passionately about circumcision, Halloween, and bathtub razor-blade suicides against heroic guitar foil Alex Durig trying to get his Nugent on. Or, in St. Louis, there’d be a band like Raymilland, whose Recordings ’79-’81 (BDR) zip-zaps their science-experiment synth noise and dub-housed axe drones in a manner seemingly trucked down the interstate from the dilapidated North Ohio flats of Pere Ubu and the Bizarros. Pretty impressive that all this stuff was happening around the same time, with barely anybody noticing. Except then, within a few years . . . pfft. Whatever you call it, it was on its way out.

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Colt Ford, Renaissance Man

“Country music is where old genres go to die—or live,” English professor and record-guide author David Cantwell truth-bombed at the EMP Pop Music Conference in Seattle last month. He was mainly talking blues chords, but in the ’00s, the old stuff could just as well have been old-school Sugarhill-style hip-hop, via Kid Rock or Cowboy Troy. So now it’s the ’10s, and we’ve got Colt Ford: a 40-year-old, 300-pound Athens, Georgia, ex-golf-pro who road-dawgs 200 shows a year, revitalizing the kind of greasy, mud-spinning, r-dropping flows heard on early-aughts Southern-rap records. Since December 2008, he’s put out two studio albums, a live album, and a Wal-Mart-exclusive EP/DVD—all on his own grass-roots Average Joe’s Entertainment label. Three of those are currently in the top 70 of Billboard‘s country album chart; his new Chicken & Biscuits just entered both the country and rap charts in the Top 10.

Across all those releases, he shows off his scope. He drawls like Bubba Sparxxx against chitlin-circuit swamp guitars, an electro boombox, and chirping insects in “Cricket on a Line,” a fishing song that’s more just a repetitive chant. “Saddle Up” sounds like Juvenile-style New Orleans bounce at a barn dance; live, he stretches it past 13 jam-festival minutes. He shares Waffle House patty melts with his long-crunking fellow 300-pound Georgian, Bone Crusher, above a butt-rocking Steve Miller riff on “Gangsta of Love,” and swings into even bigger-bottomed ’70s biker-barbecue boogie for his new “Mud Flap” and “Ride on, Ride out,” the latter featuring old-school principal DMC. In the ’90s, he made a gangsta-rap album with Jermaine Dupri that never came out. But now, he guest raps with hip-hop-baiting redneck duo Montgomery Gentry, and covers everything from Usher’s “Yeah” to Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” (with Colt on drums—the instrument that taught him beats in the first place) to C.W. McCall’s bicentennial CB-radio novelty “Convoy.”

Again, this is a country guy. The man born Jason Brown might dance like Heavy D, but he looks like a good ol’ boy. He might’ve graduated from the same college-town high school that gave us two B-52s, but his daddy was a used-car salesman who used to pick cotton and his momma’s from a South Carolina mill town. He may’ve been a Junior All-American golfer who grew up to give putting lessons to No Doubt’s drummer, but he also played football and baseball at Clarke Central, and after games—”This was still the South,” he says—white players and black players headed to different parties. The Athens projects didn’t scare him, but on his records, he still raps about how small-towners don’t have to lock their doors. Mostly, though, he raps about deep-fried food, cheap beer, swimming holes, career women who aren’t too snobby to skinny-dip, and single-wides with motors hanging from the tree.

On 2008’s Ride Through the Country, Ford got a songwriting credit on every track; Chicken & Biscuits uses only outside writers on more than half, which actually helps: “Trailer Park Pulp Fiction” (credit: K. Garrett, M. Kosser) is a rare contemporary country song wherein “children of the corn” revel in their own dysfunction. The new album also takes a page from hip-hop’s r&b-crossover playbook by having more country stars sing chorus hooks—a potentially canny commercial move, since songs designed for radio just might bankroll all the oddball boundary-stretching elsewhere. Either way, with Kid Rock now slated to host the CMT Awards this June, I, for one, will be severely disappointed if a multi-microphoned breakbeat-metal hick-hop throwdown medley of, say, Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses”/Trickeration’s “Western Gangster Town”/Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” isn’t on the agenda.

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The Year of Too Much Consensus

Come back, Kevin McFrench. All is forgiven.

Well, OK—Kevin McFrench never existed. He was just a fake daily-paper hack from Ohio with the corniest, rootsiest, stodgiest, most clichéd and clueless white-bread biz-sucking middle-aged middlebrow Midwestern Springsteen-to-Wilco do-gooder dad-rock critical tastes you ever saw. The couple of hilarious Pazz & Jop ballots that early-’00s Voice intern Nick Catucci filed in his name didn’t even count in the results. And, looking at this year’s tally, you get the idea that his tastes are an endangered species.

What would Kevin make of the most whimsically insular prissy-pants indie-rock-centric Top 10 albums list in Pazz & Jop history, I wonder? Heck, even 2007 still had Bruce, plus Robert Plant/Alison Krauss—salt-of-the-earth stuff, right up Kevin’s alley. Back in the early ’00s, indie nerds were lucky to occupy even three spots. But back then, nobody knew what Pitchfork was. (Remember the first time you looked for it and found that farm website?) And damned if eight of this year’s Top 10 P&J albums didn’t also make Pitchfork‘s Top 10. That doubles the four Top 10 similars apiece in 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

Just as disconcerting, there’s this year’s Top 10 P&J singles, seven of which come off indie-identified albums that also finished in the Top 10. Unheard of—as a point of comparison, perennial P&J album high-charters Sleater-Kinney never placed a single above #35. In the three decades since singles tabulating started, only once before have seven Top 10s emerged from Top 10 albums: 1987, and it took three verifiable hits by Prince and two by Bruce (along with one each from R.E.M. and Los Lobos) to pull it off. The last time even five singles turned the trick was 2000, and none of those—two OutKasts, two Eminems, one U2—had indie cred.

I apologize for all the math homework right off the bat, but what’s going on here? Couldn’t be that indie rock is suddenly better than everything else put together, could it? Doubtful, even if it’s gotten more rhythmic and varied, which people claim, but I can hardly ever get past the inept vocals, so I wouldn’t know. Plus, that explanation doesn’t explain more encouraging trends further down the P&J results—metal, for one, has never done better. And, to be fair, 21 albums finishing in 2009’s P&J Top 40—more than half the list, including a few more indies—didn’t place in the Pitchfork Top 40 at all.

Anyway, I’ve got theories. First off: Lazy indie voters turning a fun exercise into a dutiful one by listing random “singles” off albums they also voted for are the new version of lazy AOR voters who used to vote for perfunctory tracks off albums they also voted for. Only the genre and technology have changed, and the fact that the AOR squares—back before our newfangled, allegedly singles-oriented, iTunes-through-shitty-speakers era began—almost always got marginalized by radio-imbibing pop and dance and hip-hop fans. Though, hey, at least critics still fell for Lady Gaga this year. (Three top 13 singles: Who does she think she is—Prince?)

The indie domination at the top of the album list is a harder nut to crack, but a few factors seem worth pondering. For one thing, the poll’s electorate has changed—freelance dollars aren’t flowing like the old days, and with dailies and weeklies chopping arts positions, newsprint dinosaurs have departed the vocation, voluntarily and involuntarily, in droves. Meanwhile, way younger bloggers and Tweeters who make even less money reviewing music have stepped in. Some vote, and plenty see eye-to-eye with Pitchfork.

Also, this is big: Used to be, when you filled out your P&J ballot, you hadn’t seen very many other Top 10 lists. Now, with websites pretending the year is over well before Thanksgiving and surviving print mags falling in step with their own premature year-end countdowns, it’s hard to avoid peering over your neighbor’s shoulder. A story snowballs through the year, so by December, critics who don’t hear many releases and the ones who’ve heard too many to sort through—enough Pazz & Joppers to pass as a consensus—have had the words “Animal Collective” pounded into their heads so incessantly that boarding the bandwagon seems like a no-brainer.

Probably also didn’t hurt that a few critically approved indie albums actually did OK commercially, at least in relation to stuff that did worse—Veckatimest and Embryonic both hit Billboard’s Top 10 in slow weeks; Phoenix and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have SoundScanned in the 200,000-unit range. The latter two even wound up listed among the “Top Billboard 200 Albums” of 2009, albeit at a modest #177 and #192, respectively; no other P&J Top Tenner made the list. Especially given the industry’s continued double-digit retail nosedive, that’s not saying much. It’s certainly not Susan Boyle or Taylor Swift. But it’s something.

As negligible to horrible as I think most of the bands in the Top 10 are, I’m not second-guessing tastes here. People like what they like, and that apparently goes even for fans of the xx’s male singer. I’m also not too cynical about consensus to be happy that my votes for Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley, and K’Naan helped them place in the Top 40. I do wish more Web-bound whippersnappers who claim to enjoy a weird, twisted racket would go out on a limb for, say, the Jono El Grande or Meercaz or Frozen Bears or Okie Dokie records that Pitchfork ignored this year. But even though I half-ran it through most of the ’00s, Pazz & Jop hasn’t coincided with my tastes since the early ’80s, and I’m used to it. It’s Kevin McFrench I’m concerned about.

Kevin might really dig those Avett Brothers, I bet. But what would he think about Bruce’s less-dull-than-usual (and well-regarded, I thought) Working on a Dream flopping around way down at #59? And all those other albums that easily would’ve gone Top 40 in an earlier era: Bob Dylan (#41—did his Christmas record cut into votes?), Allen Toussaint (#43), Rosanne Cash (#46), Levon Helm (#47), Amadou & Mariam (#49), and Leonard Cohen (#55).

For the record, no Springsteen voters also voted for the xx or Girls, and only one voted for Animal Collective. Theoretically mainstream old-guard pros like Bill Holdship of Detroit’s Metro Times and Geoffrey Himes of the Nashville Scene both saw only two of their Top 10 albums place in the P&J Top 40; St. Louis stalwart Steve Pick, choosing esoterica like Dave Alvin and the Bottle Rockets and Ian Hunter, got shut out entirely. Back in 1980 in these pages, Robert Christgau divided the Pazz & Jop electorate into “the avant-gardists versus the traditionalists, the radicals versus the conservatives”—you know, Beefheart guys vs. Bruce guys. Me, I like strangeness and skronk, but I also like boogie and beer; still, my basic instincts have always been with the vanguard. But when it’s mainly the old farts who seem to have minds of their own, I start to wonder.

Back to the P&J 2009 homepage

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Brad Paisley Is Ready to Make Nice

“I am very disappointed in Brad Paisley,” some yokel named Jack wrote in the comments section of Country Music Television’s blog in September, a couple of months after the star performed at the White House with Alison Krauss as part of an educational workshop on country music. “He’s never been true country anyway. He probably became liberal from being married to a Hollywood actress. You can tell he’s whooped and she runs the show.”

But being whooped isn’t all that bad. The truest true-country honky-tonker on Paisley’s current American Saturday Night, the best album he’s ever made, is a witty sing-along called “The Pants,” about how you might wear ’em, bucko, but whoop-dee-doo, it’s who wears the skirt that counts.

The skirt-wearer in his own house is Kimberly Williams, who Huffington Post lists as having donated $2,300 to Barack Obama’s campaign last year, and whom Paisley first fell for after seeing Father of the Bride. “Welcome to the Future (Reprise),” off Saturday Night, relates the details. The celebrities wed in 2003—the same year Paisley hit it big with a song chiding celebrities. Six years later, on “She’s Her Own Woman,” he confesses he still doesn’t know where she keeps the tarragon, or even what tarragon is. (Psst, dude: Check the spice rack! If you really wanna impress her, the August issue of Cooking Light says tarragon can be useful with seafood; if none’s on hand, substitute parsley. You catch lotsa fish, right? Go for it.)

The Williams-Paisleys now have two boys, Huck and Jasper. Saturday Night‘s “Anything Like Me” predicts that, before long, they’ll be breaking windows and skipping class just like Paisley used to. Boys will be boys, after all. (Except for those metrosexual sissies who lotion their hands nowadays, as Brad pointed out on “I’m Still a Guy” a couple years back, ’cause how the heck do they grip their tackle box? Not that he has to worry: “I don’t highlight my hair/I’ve still got a pair.” And where his better half sees a priceless French painting, he sees a drunk, naked girl. Who is probably always changing her mind, and taking way too long to get dressed, and scratching up the car.) Paisley has also talked about being proud that Obama is his sons’ first new president, and how moved he was last November 4. Which makes him the new Dixie Chicks in certain country fans’ eyes . . . but, hey, there’s always liberal rock critics!

Besides, country radio hasn’t backlashed yet, as evidenced by his latest top 10 hit, “Welcome to the Future,” the most optimistic musical statement about the State of America you’ll hear in this recessed year: Now we can play video games on our phones and make deals with the Japanese who Gramps fought back in World War II, and, wow, look how far black people have come! The touching if confusing racial-progress verse sort of implies Obama, except the “man with a dream” Paisley refers to was somebody different (and not “Martin Luther,” whom the lyrics actually name.) Weird. Still, stellar song, even with its “futuristic” ’70s synth-pomp coda—gutsy how it runs against the Nashville grain by explicitly arguing that a changing world is a good thing.

“Welcome to the Future” is clearly Saturday Night‘s centerpiece—you can tell, since there’s that reprise later, plus a hidden instrumental version. Video’s a real throat-lumper, too: kids from all around the world planning a bright tomorrow (plus a Japanese country band twanging in front of a Confederate flag, in a song that mentions cross-burning, WTF?) It’s a genuine melting pot, just like the record’s Saturday Night Live audition of a title track, which celebrates a nation fond of Brazilian boots, French kisses, Spanish moss, Greek fraternities, Canadian bacon, Mexican beer, and pizza. Even actual immigrants, if you count Great-Great-Great-Grandpa!

What’s impressive is that as Paisley reaches toward Big Statements—not to mention conceptually arranged albums increasingly exceeding an hour in length (very rare in Music City, as is his lack of a best-of disc)—the music also somehow seems to be loosening up. Only a half-decade ago, he was easy to dismiss as just another neo-trad blando in a white hat, with as little charisma as any and a less expressive singing voice than most: He got lucky with a non-mediocre number now and then, but they all do—an album every other summer since ’99, one heartfelt Jesus song per, reams of shrug-worthy high-lonesome slow-song snooze, cornpone “Kung Pao” picking-and-grinning guest-star interludes starting with 2003’s Mud on the Tires. Then he hit with two singles about drinking that were tough to ignore: the dark death-folk Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby” and the significantly lighter booze-narrated waltz “Alcohol,” the latter novel enough to place in 2005’s Pazz & Jop poll. His surprisingly playable 16-track 5th Gear—complete with its own crit-approved novelty hit in the outdoor-sex itch-scratcher “Ticks,” some sub–Weird Al Web-geek-baiting called “Online,” more obligatory boring ballads, and nifty studio sound-effects galore—followed in 2007.

If nothing else, you had to give it up for the fella’s guitar playing. When it comes to vintage equipment, Paisley’s as much a tech wonk as his “Online” protagonist. And by 5th Gear, his understated virtuoso fills and washes—hoedown, swamp, surf, spaghetti western, blues, Merseybeat, festering Muzak voluptuousness—had become downright encyclopedic. Since he avoids the semi-metal stomping that more and more stands as Nashville’s norm, it’s easy to miss how rock he is. But 2008’s mostly instrumental wankfest Play had its Billy Gibbons and Eddie Van Halen moments, and his catchiest recent hits aren’t far from Tom Petty. Good ol’ boys like Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith push way more buttons for me: Their politics are more threatening, their sessionmen more propulsive, their vocals more involved. By comparison, Paisley’s a big ol’ wuss. But the phrase “big ol’ wuss,” from a high-IQ rundown of his life history with water, of all things, is also one of Saturday Night‘s most grin-inducing hooks. Wusses deserve respect, too, especially funny ones with chops. I wish the Williams-Paisleys all the best.

Brad Paisley plays Madison Square Garden October 21

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All Hail White Wizzard and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal

In the hilariously low-budget video for the best heavy-metal single of the year, L.A. band White Wizzard escape a curiously non-homely witch brewing up frog eggs alongside her bearded inbred hunchback monk sidekick (who’s apparently obsessed with fluffy drapery), then go racing down a Western desert highway in their “High Speed GTO,” which is the name of the song. “So glad I got away! No way I’m gonna stay!” celebrates their babyfaced singer; like a few other tracks on their High Speed GTO EP (at least the ones that aren’t about marching skeletons and giant prehistoric sharks), it’s a super-catchy breaking-free-from-treacherous-girlfriend sing-along and car-club number, themes that haven’t exactly been metal staples in the quarter-century since the prime of Van Halen.

Yeah, that’s how Southern Californian they are. But on paper, at least, White Wizzard are potential lead players in a cross-national mini-movement said to draw inspiration from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, an almost mythic early-’80s pre-thrash moment of jean jackets, fast tempos, and poverty-driven production techniques, wherein both eventual stars (Def Leppard, Motörhead) and future footnotes (Tygers of Pan Tang) theoretically took DIY cues from punk and returned metal to lager-pint basics, until Slayer and their ilk decided being “extreme” mattered more than having hooks—which is to say they’re a welcome throwback to a time when metal lyrics were audible, and hence fun to make fun of.

On Earache Records’ instructive recent New Wave of New Wave of British Heavy Metal compilation Heavy Metal Killers, White Wizzard are also one of the few non-European bands—though it’s true that the sampler’s most notable song not about hot rods, the mind-bogglingly redundant s/m anthem “Chained Up in Chains,” comes from kids named Cauldron out of Anvil’s sweet home, Toronto. And if turn-of-the-’10s NWONWOBHM does have a U.S. headquarters, it’s clearly Cali, especially now that ex-Brooklynites Early Man are based there. L.A. has also got Trigger Renegade, whose Destroy Your Mind ranked with 2007’s ravingest rock albums; Jet Fuel and Night After Night made some killer tracks, too, before imploding.

Confusingly, so did White Wizzard: The lineup making its New York debut at Club Europa’s Brooklyn Thunder Fest this weekend (alongside onetime sports-uniform-clad Newcastle numbskulls Raven and old Manowar dictator Ross the Boss) shares only bassist Jon Leon with the lineup that recorded High Speed GTO—which is to say babyfaced escapee James-Paul Luna did indeed escape; the singer and two other ex–White Wizzards are now in a rival Pasadena outfit known as Holy Grail, who seem more given to poetry about Valhalla. In fact, as they practice more, both by-products of this band fission seem to be upping the theatrical bombast a bit—not the most promising sign. But White Wizzard’s new roster, rounded out now with provincial heshers from Florida and Michigan, is still coming up with cheerful new road-trip tunes like “40 Deuces” (“Shifting gears to ride the sky/My metal heart will never die”). A recent interview also has them welcoming tranny fans and admitting that, in metal these days, “There’s always some church-burning Norwegian warlock in the forest who’s badder than you.” Who needs that ugly crap, when you’ve got music’s most blown-out GTO since Ronny & the Daytonas?

White Wizzard play the Brooklyn Thunder Fest August 28 with Ross the Boss and Raven

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Battle of the Country Hunks!

Country-Rock Hunk No. 1, Rodney Atkins, wants y’all ladies to know about a few of his favorite things: bird dogs, honkytonks, blackjack, pickup trucks, sparkplugs, beer pong, throwin’ darts, and extra innings. Hunk No. 2, Eric Church, digs smallmouth bass, Faulkner, NASCAR, Red Man (the tobacky, not the rapper), mustard on fries, sleeping in on Saturdays, not acting his age (32), and—hell, yes—his truck. Finally, Hunk No. 3, Pat Green, goes for pawn-shop guitars, crackers in his chili, trustworthy mechanics, inner-city teachers, laid-off Detroit factory workers, boxers past their prime, and giving ex-cons a second chance.

Green’s thoughtful list, as presented on the title track to his new What I’m For, reads like a cross between Alabama’s “40 Hour Week” and Roxy Music’s “Manifesto,” and his motto—that if you know what he’s for, you don’t need to ask what he’s against—may well be a sign of the times as Nashville awkwardly adapts to a more liberal era. But his fellow hunks also know who butters their bread: On Atkins’s “Best Things” (off It’s America) and Church’s “Love Your Love the Most” (off Carolina), they concede that, as cool as all this stuff might be, it still can’t compare to a good woman. All three songs appear on country albums out in recent weeks, alongside efforts by Keith Urban (Defying Gravity), Jason Aldean (Wide Open), and Dierks Bentley (Feel That Fire)—none of which are used to explicitly tally what those guys like, though none of them seem to mind small towns much. Or arena-rock riffs. Or, once again, women who can turn them into better men.

That’s particularly true for Urban, who’s been doing the “laid-back, unshaven, Down Under himbo who just stepped off his surfboard with his greasy hair” thing for a decade now. Unsurprisingly, Defying Gravity is wall-to-wall lovey-dovey fare, primarily about kissing. I keep hoping he’ll make a hot-shit guitar record someday—maybe even a live album—but he just keeps getting Ladies’ Choicier. Nonetheless, he reliably still sounds more like John Waite (production-wise), Don Henley (vocal-wise), and Lindsey Buckingham (guitar-wise) than like George Strait or Randy Travis. And he’s still most fun when he makes lazy haziness his point (surrounded by audible waves and Ferris wheels in ” ‘Til Summer Comes Around”) or powers his jangle-pop like Bryan Adams crushing on Tom Petty (“Standing Right in Front of You”). He’s least fun when he ends his album apologizing through a dark night of the soul, seemingly praising wifey Nicole Kidman for saving him from all that coke—even calling himself “born again,” despite being Catholic.

Pat Green ends What I’m For uncharacteristically gloomy and sober, too—”In the Middle of the Night” of a cold, lonely, overwrought Boston winter, contemplating “shooting my soul right through the ceiling.” The longtime DIY guy has been gravitating toward heartland rock since he sold his San Antonio soul to Music City earlier this decade; the only time the word “country” shows up on his current publicity one-sheet is in the title to his paradoxically Mellencampish current single “Country Star.” His previous hit, “Let Me,” swiped its guitar hook straight from Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” (See also: Urban’s “Only You Can Love Me This Way” = America’s “Ventura Highway” = Bentley’s “Better Believer” = Ringo Starr’s “Photograph.”) More Green lights: a gorgeously fugue-y ode to hard-luck siblings, a hangover number that chimes like “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” and some perfectly humid swamp-soul about how we are all prostitutes.

Like Green’s “Lucky,” Rodney Atkins’s “Got It Good” spells out how rich people have it great, but regular folks oughta be thankful for their blessings, too. Corny, but so what? Rodney’s band rips the Stones like Mellencamp’s in 1982. Next comes “Friends With Tractors,” a fast-rolling pro-farmer boogie climaxing with a hoedowned shoutout to Larry the Cable Guy. It’s America‘s hit title track idiotically implies that only in the U.S. do neighbors help out when there’s a natural disaster, but Atkins was born with a baritone sturdy enough to put over his prole-romanticizing platitudes, and he’s developing a wit to match—when this good ol’ boy gives up smokin’ and drinkin’ and women, it’s the worst 15 minutes of his life; when he wakes up at 4 a.m. at album’s end, it’s not to confess sins but to go fishing. His 2006 breakthrough If You’re Going Through Hell had four country chart-toppers on it, most notably “Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy),” the funniest song ever written about being the dad of a daughter who just started dating; his new set’s exuberant pinnacle, “Chasing Girls,” winds up in similar (if less threatening) paternal territory after opening with a reminiscence of flirty tweens pursuing each other around bungalowed cul-de-sacs with squirt guns and water balloons. It’s also the best song to mention EPTs since Eric Church’s “Two Pink Lines” two years ago; a pink stuffed animal goes to whoever can figure out which forgotten early-’80s Nerf-metal classic its suburb-in-summer guitar riffs come from.

The riff in Jason Aldean’s latest smash, “She’s Country,” as far as I can tell, comes from AC/DC. He’s easily got the hackiest cowboy hat here, but what sets him apart are frequent hooks that don’t just feel hard—they feel heavy. The first time I heard his 2005 debut hit “Hicktown,” I thought of Black Sabbath; his follow-up “Johnny Cash,” amusingly enough, largely recalled mid-career Bad Company. The Georgia metalbilly’s new Wide Open features nary a single self-penned lyric, but the title opener about an underemployed gal “slingin’ eggs and bacon with a college education” holds its own regardless.

Right now, though, the most interesting thing about Aldean is that Eric Church has it out for him. “Ya sing about Johnny Cash/The Man in Black woulda whipped your ass,” Church scolds, in a song castigating “one-hit wonders,” plus your usual feisty clichés about how Waylon wouldn’t’ve done it that way. That’s “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” one of several slide-strewn chip-on-shoulder shit-kickers on Carolina‘s first half; halfway through the album, in “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the singer pulls out his stash, the guitars do a hefty trailer-park vamp, and you wonder why this usually apolitical rebel thinks we need “a little more right and a little less left.” The album opens loud, with Church imbibing and overtiming himself to death; he hangs onto 16 as long as he can in “Young & Wild,” and for “Where She Told Me to Go,” Hell is a bachelor’s apartment with faulty plumbing and lousy TV reception. On the record’s subpar second half, he mushes out—a dame inevitably saves his hard head from hitting rock-bottom, but not from falling short of his ’06 debut. There’s still a jaunty “Twist and Shout” swipe, though. And a lush and elongated guitar solo at the end.

Dierks Bentley’s “Little Heartwrecker” is more or less the same song as Church’s “Hell on the Heart”: She’s a hottie, so prepare to get burned. And ramblin’ Arizonan Lollapaloozer Dierks—by consensus, the hunkiest of these hunks, give or take Aussie Urban, and the only other one not born in Dixie—is going through motions of his own on Feel the Fire. As with Urban, slacker nonchalance is part of what makes him sexy. But four albums in, his rockgrass roadster is stuck in the muck. There’s one great track (“I Can’t Forget Her,” made spacious with spooky spaghetti-western guitars and Del Rio desert sand blowing around), a couple good ones at the beginning (some fugitive funk with motorcycle sounds and “space bass,” some blatant pro–Velvet Rope line-dance fodder), and lots of indistinctive competence. Which might be enough: If you need a little help, Dierks is here to tell you that Babe, there ain’t a button he can’t reach. Maybe even the ones in your sewing kit, on that really high shelf! But can he bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan?

Jason Aldean plays B.B. King’s May 6; Pat Green plays Bowery Ballroom April 16

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Fun with the Duhks, Donna the Buffalo, and Old Crow Medicine Show

Back in prehistoric days, before search functions and social networking, bands considered it a mark of credibility to insist their music was “unclassifiable.” But now artists set their own genre agendas, and record labels complicate matters: Winnipeg quintet the Duhks, for instance, claim on their MySpace page that they’re both “acoustic/Afrobeat/folk-rock” and “roots, worldbeat, soul”; as if that’s not confusing enough, their Sugar Hill Records press bio adds categories ranging from “French lounge pop” to “punk rock.” Duhks labelmates Donna the Buffalo—based in the Central New York hamlet of Trumansburg—simply call themselves “Americana/folk-rock” on MySpace, but Sugar Hill opts for the considerably more complex “traditional mountain music infused with elements of Cajun, rock, folk, reggae, and country.” And Old Crow Medicine Show, who likewise started out in the fiddle-friendly Trumansburg/Ithaca area before shifting to Nashville, go for “bluegrass/country/folk,” though their publicity bio, from Nettwerk Records, professes a “special blend of American roots, rock, blues, and country.”

The bottom line is that none of these veteran small-label acts consider themselves purists. In theory, at least, all three bands emphasize rhythm in ways that foil their folkie rep, but they’re all limited by acoustic asceticism regardless. Yet they’re far from interchangeable, and they all offer hybrids savvy enough to make you wish they were even better than they are.

Bands like this can risk coming off like a chamber trio in the lobby of your local library; check out the reverent parlor-room reduction of western swing offered by Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown if that sort of thing intrigues you. But Donna the Buffalo, for their part, sound inseparable from the Great Outdoors. These are the kind of old Deadheads who probably chose to cover John Anderson’s Everglades ode “Seminole Wind” because it’s got otters and gars in it; their originals suggest holistic hippies squeezing accordions and strumming washboards on the front porch, two-stepping in the shadow of yonder mountain range—”Rocking in a weary land,” as one of their better albums put it. They constantly get cosmic about Mother Earth, and they’re known to flesh out their rustic sound with African juju grooves. But, at least on record, they don’t go hog-wild with the jamming.

Silverlined, DTB’s seventh album, ponders “the force that binds all living things.” One song mentions butterflies and dragonflies; a few tracks later, there are bumblebees and beetles, while grand finale “Forty Days and Forty Nights”—partly about how a dog pooping in the grass helps maintain the circle of nature—references Noah’s Ark and the Beatles. It’s an autumnal record, shuffling and choogling and often weary indeed. But after 20 years, these people play like pros—as they forfeit character, their music gains shape. There’s a vague (if well-meant) recurring antiwar theme, but the songs that stand out are the straightforward ones about everyday life: fiddler-etc. Tara Nevins getting impatient about menfolk in the Alanis approximation “Broken Record” and the zydeco jaunt “I Don’t Need a Riddle”; guitarist-etc. Jeb Puryear cooing over some “96 Tears”–style organ about his baby daughter “growing up in a rolling home” in “Biggie K.” Domesticity on wheels—so when do tour buses get wind power, anyway?

Canucks the Duhks share a lot with Donna the Buffalo: a co-ed five-person lineup, a bluegrass bent more songful than showoffy, Whole Foods–wholesome world-rhythm ambitions, eco-friendly CD packaging reducing the carbon footprint, a label home in Sugar Hill, a Bela Fleck connection. But while they’ve been casually mixing in gospel dirges and Latin lilts ever since their Renaissance Faire–ready 2002 debut, such omnivorousness increasingly seems their primary mission, especially since the more blatantly blues-proud Sarah Dugas supplanted Jessee Havey up-front last year. Their self-titled 2005 disc—obsessed with death but revolving around pretty songs set in Baltimore and Delaware—is still where to begin, saccharine Sting cover notwithstanding.

When they started out, “Traditional” was the Duhks’ main songwriter. On their new Fast Paced World, only one song—another gospel dirge, about Galveston’s Great Storm of 1900—gets credited that way. And now they’re (rather rigidly) covering Brazilian percussion maestro Carlinhos Brown instead of Leonard Cohen. They’re putting more space between beats, too: An instructive analogy might be Los Lobos subjecting their own danceable regional post-folk to artsy studio effects in the early ’90s. But though I bet they’re in denial about it, the Duhks’ forte is still fiddle-jigging, at some confluence of the Celtic and Appalachian and maritime Cajun varieties. And just like on 2002’s Your Sons and Daughters, old-man-voiced banjoist Leonard Podolak has the most assured vocal here, in an earthy driving song called “95 South” that manages not to feel too quaint for this, uh, fast-paced world. Dugas’s suburban-phobic platitudes in the preachy title track, by contrast, come at least a half-century late.

Live at Joe’s Pub a few years back, the Duhks delivered the most zoological joke I’ve ever heard a band tell onstage: They claimed that they’d “married” their pals in the Canadian agit-folk band the Mammals and would hereafter be called the Platypi. So maybe we need to wait for a live album to hear them truly loosen up. For now, though, it bugs me how their tempos only accelerate when they do instrumentals; unlike, say, Charlie Poole or Uncle Dave Macon or all those other old-timey fiddle-and-banjo post-minstrel ’20s and ’30s white-blues acts that Geoffrey Himes compared the newest newgrass wave to in a Times piece last fall, the Duhks never seem to want to talk fast over fast jig rhythms.

The one ’00s band that I’ve heard pull that trick off are the five sometimes–Teddy Boy–attired hillbilly-blues cats in Old Crow Medicine Show. O.C.M.S., their not-quite-self-titled 2004 not-quite-a-debut, opened with four killers they’re unlikely ever to match: The two speediest concerned cocaine, the groggiest was a drunken Depression poverty blues, and the one original among them was a Vietnam-draft yarn verging on delinquent greaser rockabilly. But Old Crow couldn’t sustain such energy through the album: The single was a mediocre rendition of a mediocre Dylan song, and the sluggish “C.C. Rider” left me hoping somebody would teach them about Mitch Ryder.

Two Nettwerk albums later, and for Tennessee Pusher, who’s in their corner but Don Was—whose second Was (Not Was) LP Mitch sang on 25 years ago! Old Crow, meanwhile, are still preoccupied, not always in a recreational way, with drugs. That’s the subject of the opening subterranean homesick blues-talker “Alabama High-Test” and occupationally hazardous title cut “Tennessee Pusher,” not to mention “Methamphetamine,” which tackles a hinterlands scourge that more mainstream Nashville is still scared to touch. And, oh yeah, there’s also “Humdinger,” a commendably quasi-crazed Holy Modal Rounders attempt featuring naked body-surfing on a river of beer. Plus an MLK assassination conspiracy involving the CIA, a rolling-on-the-riverboat closer that alludes to the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, plenty of explicit faux-Dylan myth-making, and plenty more train-whistle harmonica.

Sounds promising on paper, I know, and my inclination is to blame the low-impact outcome on Was’s parched production—either that or maybe somebody was worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of Garrison Keillor. All five Old Crows sing, and more than with the Duhks or DTB, you catch all the words. But these guys don’t have the melodies or the pipes to pull off the Workingman’s Dead they frequently seem to be aiming for, and the music has mellowed immeasurably since those wild-haired opening cuts on O.C.M.S. So when Old Crow Medicine Show say that right-wingers and folk singers aren’t invited to their humdinger, I’m confused—because like their roots-rock brethren and sistren, if they’re not the former, they’re still certainly the latter, no matter how hard they try to brand themselves as a whole new thing.

Old Crow Medicine Show play Webster Hall September 26-27