Cowboy in Flames
The problem with most new country music is that it's too damned polite. It's hard to imagine Garth Brooks or George Strait on a bender, and if LeAnn Rimes raises hell, I don't want to know about it. Of course, Nashville has always had its outlaws, but most have mellowed into sober sentimentalists (George Jones), stoned pacifists (Willie Nelson) or reconfigured legends (Johnny Cash). Hell, even Steve Earle appears to have tamed his demons, and God bless him.
As for the No Depression crowd, I admire but remain unmoved by the carefully crafted charms of Wilco, Son Volt and Gillian Welch. Give me the Waco Brothers instead--six Brit ex-pats who generate more dust and spit than the rest of them combined. Until recently, the Waco Brothers were best appreciated in the flesh, offering a ride that sounded like an 18-wheeler barreling down a mountain pass without brakes. But where To the Last Dead Cowboy was a distant echo of the band live, the Wacos' second album, Cowboy in Flames, sounds every bit as urgent as its title.
Originally an offshoot of the Mekons, the star-crossed punk band from Leeds, England, the Wacos, now transplanted to Chicago, approach country with the awestruck passion of true British country fans--a loyal bunch whose record purchases kept many an American country star alive during the lean years before country was cool in the U.S. The Wacos play the music of America's Bible Belt with more conviction than most of its native sons and daughters. If you doubt it, listen to their version of Jones' 1959 hit "White Lightnin'." Nashville pretenders BR5-49 would have turned this tale of mountain moonshine into a joke, but the Wacos sound genuinely drunk on homemade brew.
Sure, it's relatively easy to sound authentic playing country classics, but the Wacos don't rely on mimicry alone. Most of the 14 songs here are originals, and even when they sound closest to the Clash (on the shout-along "See Willy Fly By" and the inverted gospel of "Take Me to the Fires"), steel guitarist Mark Durante injects enough country spirit to make the hybrid work. To keep things interesting, the lead vocals are passed from spiritual leader-guitarist Jon Langford to mandolinist Tracy Dear to the lone Yank, guitarist Dean Schlabowske; and the band isn't afraid to throw in a Bo Diddley beat or a pretty melody.
Sometimes the bite comes from the lyrics, especially the bitter complaint "The Death of Country Music." These guys hate that Nashville Babylon has been defanged and suburbanized, and they're determined to reverse the damage. Call me crazy, but I find the Wacos singing "Fast Train Down" or "Out There a Ways" more convincing than Johnny Cash rumbling in Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage." The Wacos aren't real country, whatever that might mean in '97, but they're closer in spirit than anything Rick Rubin or Mutt Lange will ever produce.
And a Whole Lotta You!
Green Day introduced a new generation of punk rockers to the raucous joys of the early '60s Kinks, updating the groovy beats, massive choruses and solid hooks of the British Invasion bands with a welcomed dose of adrenaline and a bit of '90s snarl. The Bay Area quartet the Hi-Fives goes a step further in the history lesson, completing the package with Mod haircuts, three-button suits, vintage guitars and drums, and a second album featuring 16 irresistible tunes--only two of 'em more than two minutes long (and those just barely).
In the old-fashioned liner notes, the Fives proudly proclaim themselves "beat punks," acting like they invented that term. It's questionable how deep their knowledge of the genre goes--these guys are no obsessives like the Milkshakes or the Funseekers--and their choice of cover tunes betrays their age. (They tackle "Bad Connection" by Yazoo and offer a version of "Tainted Love" inspired more by Soft Cell than the Standells.) Nevertheless, their instincts are solid, and there isn't a single original on And a Whole Lotta You! that doesn't make you want to sing along, if not pogo in place.
Tunesmiths John Denery and Chris Imlay don't have a lot to say--the songs are mostly teen takes on love, lust and love lost--but they say it well. "You're not just like any other/You're better than a Chet Atkins album cover," they croon on the title track, backing up the sentiment with a frantic beat and a horny sax solo. How can anyone argue with that?
You may have thought you had Royal Trux pegged--heavy-lidded heroin chic; rambling rhythms and awkward arrangements; sneers, snarls and attitude up the wazoo--and you may not have had a hell of a lot of time for it. Leave the masturbatory postmodern romps through rock and R&B history to Jon Spencer, I always say. But damned if the funniest thing didn't happen to Neil Haggerty and Jennifer Herrema on their way to the majors.
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After four (mostly unexceptional) releases on Chicago's hipper-than-thou indie Drag City, Haggerty and Herrema moved on up to Virgin in '95, becoming label mates with what's left of their heroes the Rolling Stones. Some might have considered the David Briggs-produced Thank You a sellout, but it was as weird, sloppy and attitudinal as ever--only this time, there were bona fide pop songs that stuck in your craw, indicating for the first time that the Truckers could be more than just another Lower East Side art-rock rip-off.
Sweet Sixteen is even better. To the extent that most would care to decipher them, the lyrics tackle the same old concerns: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in-jokes. It's the musical settings that matter. Like kids in a candy store binging on every treat they were ever denied, Haggerty and Herrema spend Virgin's dollars indulging in all manner of studio fun, lovingly reconstructing every '70s sound they ever smoked a bong or nodded off to: Sly Stone-style big-band funk ("The Pick-Up"), Allman Brothers twin guitars meet prog-rock synths ("Don't Try Too Hard"), stoner country-blues-jugband shuffle ("Roswell Seeds & Stems"), and even ultra-ironic Abbey Road-era Beatlemania ("Can't Have It Both Ways").
Of course, Redd Kross and Jellyfish/Imperial Drag (to name but two) have already built winning pop from this junkyard wreckage. But while the members of Royal Trux came to the party late, they arrived with their arms full of treats: The glam-slam Stones-meet-Sabbath proto-metal of "Morphic Resident" induces near constant boom-box replay. And the Truckers put their own unique spin on things: The attitude and posing seem to have purpose when the tunes are this solid. Haggerty has a great, gravelly rock 'n' roll growl, and nobody since Marlene Dietrich has made smoking such an art form.