New City of Sin
When Bruce Connole of the Suicide Kings opens his band's debut CD with lines like "See the race I've run and now it's over," "I'm the setting sun that's getting colder" and "Sold my soul for pennies, I was king for a day," he's not just mixing metaphors with cliches. He's doing country music. He's joining countless C&W artists who've borrowed platitudes and familiar imagery to fuel their lonesome songs. What marks the Suicide Kings as special and worth noting is the way Connole takes the common howl of country music's losers and hard-livers and refines it into a fresh take on the same old thing.
That the Suicide Kings come out of the chute with a strong CD is not surprising. Connole's long been one of the Valley's best rock 'n' pop songwriters, having played a prominent role in some of the best bands (Billy Clone and the Same, the Jetzons, the Strand) to pack local clubs over the past two decades. But Connole's been unable to ride his considerable talents to corresponding success in the music biz. For that he has only himself to blame. Recurring drug and alcohol problems are said to have sabotaged each of the aforementioned high-profile acts, turning Connole's once-promising career into a legacy of underachievement. Now Connole's joined guitarist Richard Taylor (who's missed a few opportunities of his own--he was an original Gin Blossom), bassist Scott Kalkbrenner and drummer Bobby Domings in forming a pop-country act that puts Connole's troubled past where he can see it, directly in front of him at eye level. The results are striking. Read the lyrics from the opening song again. They don't sound quite as hackneyed coming from Connole's point of view.
The Suicide Kings' twang-noir is sustained nicely throughout the nine-song album. "I raise my glass to memories/Dead friends and enemies/Laughter and love that never has been and will never be," Connole sings on the perfectly titled "Light at the End of the Bottle." Later, he closes the album by claiming in baritone haunts that he's "a leather-wearing Jesus, bastard son of man" on "Cradle to the Grave," a brooding, premature postmortem on a gothic Western tough guy--and a song the band performed live on National Public Radio when NPR's What Do You Know visited Phoenix last winter.
Despite the CD's overriding moodiness, Connole's downer lyrics often feel refreshingly ambivalent, every threat tinged with regret, every push away a hint for help. He may sing, "Why do you love me when you know that I don't care," but after a succession of such self-loathing it becomes apparent that the cowboy doth protest too much. And when Connole aims outward, his flip-flopped bitterness, combined with his songs' catchy hooks and melodies, can get downright bubbly: "If I loved you the way that you loved me/I'd have to lie and cheat and keep you in misery," he sings at one point, before adding the song's big showstopper line: "Even hookers say goodbye."
The only hitch in the Suicide Kings' git-along is when Connole's country ambitions get the best of him. "Blood River" is the best example. It begins with a promising, up-tempo melody that surveys a psychic scene akin to something out of Cormac McCarthy's macabre Western novels. Here, as throughout the CD, Connole and Taylor complement each other with sharp guitar interplay and equally effective vocals, but just when the chorus should cut like an arrow, the song stops for a pair of hokey, chanted couplets. The break is more like an amputation, making for one of the few times the band stumbles over the façade it's made of the moody, mysterious West.
Otherwise, the Suicide Kings have put together a considerable collection of genre-stretching tunes. It's a convincing piece of work from a mature songwriter who's made a lot of trouble for himself and lived to pick the best musical style to sing about it.
Another local country-fried band, Grievous Angels, isn't nearly as moody as the Suicide Kings, but "Grievous," as the band's affectionately known around town, is every bit as eager and successful in pilfering the best of country music's traditions. Like Connole and his crew, Grievous is made up of ex-rockers in love with Western sounds, the similarities between the two bands going so far as to include another ex-Gin Blossom, guitarist Dan Henzerling, in the mix. And like the Suicide Kings, Grievous Angels, to the band's credit, can't avoid its rock 'n' roll heritage. As such, New City of Sin, the second Grievous album for Chicago-based alterna-country label Bloodshot Records, sounds at once old and new, with just the right pull in both directions.
Where the Suicide Kings battle inner demons with both boots firmly on the ground, Grievous Angels, named after a landmark album by country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, is always looking for an escape route. A sense of wanderlust--similar to the displacement that moved Parsons to find solace "out among the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels"--propels New City of Sin and its drifter tunes like "Carolina Bound," "Home Sick Home" and a cover of the Long Ryders' "Here Comes That Train Again." When a Tempe band feels the need to write a song titled "Sleeping on the Bayou," you know there's some roaming and rambling in the muse. Yet there's an emotional distance to the travel plans Grievous sings about. Band leader Russell Sepulveda, who dons the stage name Earl C. Whitehead in honor of his late grandfather, can sound convincing when he croons, "It's all in my head, but it's spread to my limbs/I'll be healed when it feels like home" (from "Home Sick Home"). There's obvious fiction going on, though, when he sings of a rotten-toothed heroin addict who "steals his grandma's car to New Orleans," and finds that if things are bad at home, they can get a lot worse somewhere else: "He's sleeping in the bayou to an old Cajun tune," Sepulveda sings of the ill-fated character. "If he owes you anything, you'll have to dive in, too."
Grievous is better when the band's wild-eyed songs risk intimacy. "Flowers," for example, has an effective Latin melody ushering Sepulveda's confession that "Today I found your earrings under my pillow/They sit here by my bedside, by my silent telephone," followed by the song's killer closer: "I can't give you flowers 'cause you can't take them home." (You've got to have that big showstopper line if you're gonna go country.) "Flowers" is followed by another heartfelt song, "Don't Die While I'm Alive," penned by bassist Mickey Ferrell. It's a peppy tune tempered with honest, good, old-fashioned angst: "When death comes a-calling and knocks upon your door . . . /Send him over to me before you go/Don't die while I'm alive." The clever but emotive word play, again, is in the best of country convention.
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Musically, Grievous shines. Sepulveda and Henzerling make for a tight team, with Sepulveda kicking up antsy, jumpy lead vocals and Henzerling riding shotgun in the role of background vocal sidekick and hired guitar-slinger. Ferrell and Gin Blossoms drummer Philip Rhodes, who sits in on most of the songs, do a good job in keeping the energy level up and adding heft to the sound. But the band's most effective player is pedal-steel guitarist John Rauhouse, a sonic secret weapon who charges Grievous with true country flavorings every time he puts pick to string. Rauhouse, who also plays banjo and mandolin, provides equal authenticity to the neobluegrass sounds of "Don't Bother to Cry," a song that shows there's a solid bluegrass band itching to escape all the honky-tonk smoke and breathe some fresh country air--and indeed, the members of Grievous Angels have a side project, the more acoustic and folk-fueled Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.
Rauhouse's contributions notwithstanding, there are times when Grievous falls short of country credibility, relying on similar-sounding train-track rhythms to pick up the songwriting slack. The formula works onstage--the band is one of the most kinetic and good-time live acts around. But on disc, there's a sense that Grievous is still a couple of barrooms and a lost love or two short of convincing the hardest of hard-core truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels to blubber in their beer.
If Grievous Angels, like the Suicide Kings, sound at times like dabblers, like suburban dilettantes squeezing on cowboy boots and pretending to ride a horse others have tamed, it comes with a country band's territory, especially when that territory is one of the largest urban areas of the country. Still, cross-pollination can make for surprising, head-turning results. Like the secret closing cut on New City of Sin, a late addition about 15 minutes after the CD's last listed song. It's a rendition of "Bodies," the old Sex Pistols nugget, and it's a hoot. It's a little unnerving, though, in the way Sepulveda sounds so much more like a hunchbacked English proto-punk than a lonesome Southwest cowpoke. After crushing the song, Sepulveda good-naturedly begs off another take, telling his bandmates, "I'm not doing it again." Too bad. Roots music can take fascinating turns when the roots are allowed to show.