With Americano!, Roger Clyne and his caballeros have returned with the most potent album in their Southwest-loving canon. Before we pin gold stars on each of their ponchos, though, let's examine this song cycle from its effective starting point, "God Gave Me a Gun." Released in advance of the album on the Internet this past spring, this ironic gung-ho holy war anthem has inspired fists a-pumpin' in many a wrongheaded direction. Rather than hear its borrowed "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" riff as a clue to the pacifist heart that beats just below the surface, pro-Iraqi war factions chose to view our favorite gringo in their own jingoistic image.
Not so, says the patriotic and (yes) skeptical Clyne, who polished off the song in a heated, get-it-off-yer-chest rush and then nearly relegated it to the rubbish heap. "It was the first time I've faced wartime as a father and I was trying to sort out the conflicting things I was feeling as an American while my country was entering a questionable war," Clyne says. "I didn't want to make it specific to any particular conflict."
And good thing, too, since this conflict lacks both "shock and awe" in the protest song department. Have you forgotten Darryl Worley or, even worse, the Beastie Boys pounding the dumb drums "In a World Gone Mad"? Instead of bogging down his rage with specifics, Clyne lobs his verbal grenades straight down the middle so that it's hard not to disagree with the messenger for saying, "Take an eye for an eye and make the whole world blind."
As for how that salvo led him into Americano!, Clyne confides, "I'm blessed with a wife who just put the car keys in my hand and pointed me to Mexico when I needed to write some songs. So I was down there in March and actually happened to be sitting in a cantina watching CNN and then the Mexican news reports when we started our blitz on Baghdad. So it was a strange feeling being from one country, sitting in another watching a war taking shape in yet another part of the world. Some people were cheering, I'd see other people crying and there were a few times where I felt myself eyed with suspicion by the locals."
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The experience helps him empathize his way through a collection of character sketches, which find him either running from a hangman's noose or falling into loving arms or sometimes both, as in the title track, where a trigger man asks Ave Maria for forgiveness nightly but won't give la policia the satisfaction of catching him. Mary returns on "Switchblade," another story song about two small-time banditos who meet a bloody end brandishing the weapon another friend bought each of them.
There's hardly a song on this album that doesn't contain some kinda reference to Clyne's south-of-the-border second home, be it ponchos or sandals or crying statues of the Blessed Virgin. Sure, he's worn his corazon on his sleeve (okay, we'll stop now) for Mexico since Wheelie, but this is his most intense concentration yet, even including a Tejano trumpet-and-accordion-laden song about "Mexican Moonshine" that reportedly had Sammy Hagar frothing in his Cabo Wabo lager.
The repetition of theme and purposefully limited palette that has served singer-songwriters like Springsteen and Mellencamp so well also works to Clyne's advantage, as his parables of love and mercy give you a sense of place that's sorely lacking these days. And like those arena heroes, Clyne has assembled a sympathetic backing band that never upstages a song with virtuosity. This is true of the seamless rhythm section of Danny White and P.H. Naffah, the latter who worked up the songs with Clyne in their earliest demo form. It's especially true of guitarist Steve Larson, who, like Tom Petty's secret weapon Mike Campbell, is capable of running rings around many a guitar hero but wins Good Scout points for exhibiting an almost herculean restraint. You don't get much more elemental than Larson's riffs on the radio-friendly "Counter Clockwise" and the love-song-for-all-stadiums "I Don't Need Another Thrill."
If you date back with Clyne in his frat-rock days, be assured that although the serious artist has taken precedent, the guy can still deliver the goods in the "throwaway song as high art" department. Case in point: the Americano! hidden track -- yes, CDs still have them. The fellas cut loose with some tasty walking bass and honky-tonk piano on "A Little Hung Over You," which milks its title for every play on words in the tradition of truly great country music. Somewhere, the late Harland Howard is slapping his forehead that he didn't think of it first. So while Americano! won't start any revolutions like its flag-waving cover implies, its modest victories are guaranteed to turn some heads.