Remembering It's Rock
March in Austin, Texas, and the streets are filled with the din and clatter of competing sounds. The noise of traffic and pedestrians swells as the strain of music resonates from what seems like every building. The annual South by Southwest conference, the world's biggest music industry orgy, is heating up just as the city's temperature drops. Even for Austin's sometimes cool spring evenings, the night is uncharacteristically frigid. North of the city's main drag, across from the famous Stubb's Bar-B-Q, the Club Deville is hosting a private party for the locally based Doolittle Records label. Outside the bar, underneath a canopy deflecting an intermittent drizzle, Slobberbone is finishing up its set with frantic hillbilly redux of the Cars' power-pop classic "Just What I Needed."
The cover comes after the group -- singer/songwriter Brent Best, guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper -- has finished putting the assembled crowd in a state of near-frenzy with its performance. It's an hour's worth of whiskey-sodden laments that explore the dark folklore, twisted comedy and workaday struggles of a sometimes forgotten underclass. The music is unadorned and unapologetic rock 'n' roll, but one fused with country themes and chaotic punk energy.
After the set, Best packs his gear and retreats to a quiet corner outside, shivering as he pulls off his knit cap. As the steam rises from his head, he untangles a mess of long black hair and rubs his eyes as a look of frustration comes over his face. During a week when bands come from all points to hawk their latest wares, Slobberbone is stuck playing a game of hurry up and wait. The band's label is right in the midst of a merger that has pushed the release of its album back until summer. It seems an eternity has passed since Slobberbone's last long-player, and Best is eager to get it out now.
It's been a long road for the band since the release of 1997's Barrel Chested (on the heels of its 1996 debut Crow Pot Pie). Two and a half years of continuous roadwork followed. Even for the strongest of wills, the rigors of life in a van and the endless stream of one-night stands can be trying. Add to that the strain of a hectic SXSW schedule, one that will see the band perform multiple shows. Whatever it is, Best -- shoulders hunched, head in hand -- looks very tired.
It's early May and late afternoon in Denton, Texas, when Brent Best answers the phone. He speaks in a tired drawl that suggests he might've just risen from a deep sleep. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the exhausted frustration of SXSW has given way to a sense of satisfaction, the result of the stellar triumph that is the band's forthcoming record, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today (set for release July 25). From his earliest efforts as an East Texas punk rocker to his Denton garage band days, through the various mutations of Slobberbone's twang-core, Best has been in constant pursuit of a particular sound. Everything You Thought is the product of an artist finally finding what he's been looking for. From the opening 12-string/fiddle salvo of "Meltdown" to the pop songcraft of "Bright Eyes Darkened," the love-haunts-eternal ballad "Josephine" to the chugging banjo wail of "Pinball Song," the group has created a record that's sure to dazzle some and leave others groping for adjectives and genre hybrids to define the band's distinctive new sound.
Everything You Thought was recorded at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios last winter with producer Paul Ebersold (Sonia Dada, Green on Red). Making the album in such expensive trappings was not a concept the band felt comfortable with, according to Best. So leery were band members of the increased expectations that they actually tried negotiating a smaller budget for the album. "I don't know," sighs Best. "I'm just self-conscious about that sort of thing, because we're not the type of band that needs a huge budget and a big studio. Even though it worked out this time, it's probably not something we would need to do again."
Despite the relative success of Barrel Chested -- the disc has sold 20,000 copies, and the single "Your Excuse" garnered the band some American airplay and a strong European following -- Best wasn't interested in repeating the formula.
"It was a weird feeling at the time -- and this goes back to them sending us into a big studio. I remember feeling like, "I guess we need to deliver some rock songs again, à la Barrel Chested.'
"But I knew this album wasn't going to be that way. I think maybe a lot of my initial concerns came from worrying about how I was going to shoehorn some blazing rock songs into this album."
Besides his own creative uncertainty, Best had to deal with the ongoing upheaval at the band's label. Doolittle founder Jeff Cole, the man who discovered the band in 1995 and helped produce both its records, recently left the company after its merger with New West Records (home to former Wall of Voodoo singer Stan Ridgway and honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver, among others).
Though Best and company are secure with their new home, he's quick to point out that the group wasn't willing to compromise, or play it safe, just to court success.
"That was the whole problem that we had with our label early on, is that they were thinking in much more grandiose terms, in terms of what we were capable of commercially. We certainly weren't going to alter what we did with this record in the hopes of that -- especially knowing what kind of songs I had. Ultimately, I have no commercial expectations at all."
That's one count where Best may be wrong, as the disc is brimming with critical and commercial potential. The songs in this new collection take and refine the band's direction, retaining its git-ar-heavy sound while upping the backwoods flourishes of banjo, harp and steel guitar, channeling much of that into song structures that traipse previously uncharted pop territory.
"Yeah," agrees Best, "this one was more varied intentionally."
The precise motivation for the change? "I'm almost 30 and I'm ready to kind of move on," he says after a long pause. "I think a lot of it had to do with all the touring we did behind Barrel Chested. Going for two and a half years and playing those songs every night -- loud guitar amps and stuff -- which I still love, but at some point you naturally start gravitating toward something different."
The "something different" in the case of Everything You Thought is both a musical and thematic shift, or, more accurately, an evolution. Best has taken a definite step away from the liquor, guns and romance fatalism that marked the more anthemic numbers in the early Slobberbone canon. If the ferocious tenor of Crow Pot Pie was the group's attempt to establish its identity as the AC/DC of the alt-country set, and Barrel Chested was Best turning his gaze inward and examining his own maturation from youthful, drunken ne'er-do-well to grudging grown-up, then the new album is the logical progression toward something deeper, and, in a sense, something bigger.
Best's pen has also grown increasingly sardonic, exchanging the literal conceits of his earlier work ("It's not the same without you here/Let me make that picture clear") for wry observations of the world at large, even if that only means the patrons at the corner tavern ("I saw that girl you used to know at the other end of the bar/I never thought she'd ever get that far").
The new record also stretches as it incorporates more than a few different sonic touches, courtesy of some interesting guest players, including veteran Beale Street horn players Scott Thompson and Kirk Smothers.
Best adds that was "the great thing about Memphis and working with Paul because he knew all these great people who would come in and play for next to nothing."
"And that was also the luxury of working at Ardent and on a bigger scale in general," says Best. "On something like "Pinball Song,' we used to end it by doing this oompah thing on the guitar, trying to mimic the sound of a horn. But we were in the studio recording it and Paul was like, "How about getting somebody in here to do that for real?' And the next thing you know, he's calling around getting a tuba player to come play the part."
In addition to the brass, the album boasts a duet with the Drive By Truckers' Patterson Hood on "Lazy Guy." The charging paean to perennial shiftlessness is made irresistible by Hood's redneck Muppet holler. "He's got one of my favorite gnarly Southern voices," says Best, of the Athens, Georgia, guitarist/vocalist. "He's kind of like an American Shane MacGowan."
But for Best, the most exciting cameo appearance came from legendary producer/pianist Jim Dickinson (Big Star, Replacements). Dickinson, a frequent visitor to the band's sessions, played on a trio of tracks including "Placemat Blues," a loving cop of the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me opener "I.O.U."
"He laid down this just blazing boogie-woogie piano part that we didn't end up using in the final mix, but it was kind of surreal to be there in Memphis, at the studio where he produced them, and we're playing our "I.O.U.' rip-off song, and he's playing piano on it. It was pretty cool."
What does all this mean for a band known for a meat-and-potatoes musical ethic -- one that prompted them, in the face of genre tag semantics, to print the admonition "Remember, It's Rock" on the sleeve of their last CD?
"That was more to deflect the whole alt-country thing which was insane at the time," says Best of the mid-'90s roots movement saddled with monikers from Americana and No Depression to punkabilly and insurgent country. "I don't think it's healthy to have all these distinctions. And even though I liked a lot of those groups under that banner, I didn't care to be lumped into that."
In recent years, many of the early leaders of the style (Jayhawks, Wilco) have abandoned their banjos and flannels for more ornate pop aspirations. With Everything You Thought, Slobberbone, too, is leaving its past behind, maybe even part of its alt-country affiliation.
Regardless, the group isn't looking for another subgenre to try to fit into. "What we put on the last album, about it being "rock,' that still holds true. Because we are a rock band, pure and simple," says Best. "That's all we've ever aspired to be."
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