The best thing about being a fan from way back is experiencing the delight of listening to a young band become better than you ever imagined. It's easy, after all, to fall in love at first sound; there's the thrill of getting turned on to a singer or a song that melts the cynic into a puddle of true believer. But relationships built on a foundation of chords and lyrics aren't easy to sustain. Rock 'n' roll romances exist only until someone else comes along, singing your song.
Slobberbone can keep a fan faithful; one need not cheat when each album improves upon the last, nurturing the relationship between fan and band until the notion of straying becomes unfathomable. Crow Pot Pie, self-released in 1994, opened with a drunken tumble and closed with a call for another round; the drums sounded like a screen door in a tornado, and Brent Best growled through what sounded like a perpetual hangover. Its follow-up, 1997's Barrel Chested, dug deeper ("Drunk Little Fists"), until the songs felt like nails being pounded into your chest. Album number three, though, bests them all: It's one of those casual, messy gems that sounds as if it were put together on a dare. The back-room band from Denton, Texas has opened up and allowed room for horn sections and Hammond organs and a toy piano and fiddles and lap steels and mandolins -- all the sounds under a "Magnetic Heaven," the disc's stirring, sole instrumental.
One can't help but think "Placemat Blues" is an homage to the extant band once managed by New West vice president Peter Jesperson, the Replacements. From its title (a nod to the Replacements' nickname) to its feedback-and-horns orgy to its insistent lyrics ("You might one day see things my way"), it's cocky rock, a centerpiece played as throwaway. "Okay, this is kinda . . . stupid," Best shrugs as the song collapses to a close. But it's tribute, not knock-off: Best, a literate lyricist who plays any instrument he can get his hands around, long ago absorbed his influences and found his own voice in a rock quarry.
Best has never sounded worse or better, even when insisting, "I'm a lazy guy/I'm amazed at the way some people try and try and try/To erect and then perfect some kind of purpose in their lives before they die." But no longer does the airtight band play keep-up: Drummer Tony Harper; bassist, etc. Brian Lane; and guitarist Jess Barr play 'til their fingers bleed, then let the album's eight guests (including Jim Dickinson) bandage the wounds and take over. Like Best sings in "Trust Jesus," "Lord I'm only just one man/Lord I've only got two hands/Lord I'll do the best I can." Hard to imagine he could do much better.
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