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When Brent Best laughs, it sounds like the slide racking on a shotgun. Sounds that way when he coughs, too. Sometimes when he sings. It's a little worse than usual; he and his band, Slobberbone, toured Europe for a few weeks and just returned home. Road life means late nights and last calls, cigarettes by the carton, alcohol by the case, colds by the time they get back. Best calls it "the European hacks"; he's had it enough times to name it. So the souvenir tee shirt reads the same as it always does: Slobberbone went to Europe and all they brought home was this stupid cough.
Best is at home in Denton, Texas, and he's got a few more days to rest before it starts again, this time in this country – first with a string of shows with Tennessee's Glossary, later with Centro-Matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, with a few dates with the Drive-By Truckers sandwiched in between. Even though he's still recovering from Slobberbone's last tour, Best is excited about the one coming up. Every show means sharing the stage with musicians he loves and respects. Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood sang on the group's 2000 record Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, and Best frequently sits in with Centro-Matic, and kills beers and brain cells with them in various Denton bars.
There's more to this tour than that: Best is also eager to get out and show off Slobberbone's latest album, Slippage. And it's a good one, too, a rock record (see: "Springfield, IL" and "Write Me Off") that knows it doesn't always have to ("Sister Beams" and "Back"). It's "classic rock" if you mean "timeless," "modern rock" if you mean "now." Best tells better stories than most – check the regretful "Butchers" who can't "get the bloodstains off their hands" if you want to know what it would sound like if a rock show broke out at a Larry Brown reading – and the band does much more than fill in the gaps behind him.
Slippage hit stores last September, but other than a gig in New York and a few warm-up shows at Dallas' Muddy Waters, the group has spent much of its time since then in Europe. In some places overseas, at more than a few of the government-subsidized venues they play, the members of Slobberbone are treated like rock stars.
"Holland is just off the scale now," Best explains. "Everywhere we go, it's either sold out or almost sold out. They're real rabid there and stuff. We're still kinda working on Germany. We've only been a couple of times before, but this was really, really good this time. They're just a different kind of crowd, you know? They're very stoic, and you don't think you're doing anything until you get done, and then they're very . . ." He pauses, searching for the right word. "Uh, non-stoic.
"But, yeah, it was really good," he continues. "It was probably our best run yet. It was fun. But at the same time, you know, no matter how good things are going over there, after a couple of weeks, it makes you miss every crappy club you've ever played at in the States."
That's probably where the band is at its best, presiding over the sweaty and smoky, holding the crowd in the palm of one hand and a longneck in the other; if Slobberbone is not America's finest bar band, then it's on the short list. Change that: Best and company (guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper) are the best, legitimate heirs to the Replacements' shit-hits-the-fans sovereignty.
You can hear that on Slippage more than any of the group's previous albums, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, 1997's Barrel Chested and 1996's Crow Pot Pie.Those albums were, in some ways, Polaroids that weren't fully developed, especially the first two. The new disc is leaner, if not meaner, ditching Everything You Thought's session musicians to focus on the guitar-drums-bass format. The first thing to go, Best says, was the banjo. And it didn't really have much to do with the songs. Getting rid of the fiddles and steel guitars and horns and all the rest, however, did.
"We've got the crappiest banjo in the world, the most temperamental thing to make work right every night," Best says. "It was like, screw it, you know? The songs for this one, going in, they were just kind of more subtle, I think, in terms of what's actually going on musically and lyrically and stuff. And so I wanted to streamline instrumentation-wise, but I still wanted the songs to feel very varied. Like, it's easy to get this broader palette of sound when you're using a bunch of different acoustic instruments in addition to electric instruments and everything."
Danbom did drop by to add his keys, and there are a few other guest shots here and there. But the quartet cut the rest live in the studio – Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park, California, specifically: "It was the '80s, hair-metal place," Best says – with Don Smith at the controls. If you don't know Smith's name, you know his work; he's recorded albums by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty. Best liked the idea because Smith recorded one of his "favorite-sounding rock records ever," Bash & Pop's Friday Night Is Killing Me, the first (and only) album by Tommy Stinson's post-Replacements outfit.