Honky Tonk Union and Real to Reel Review

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers Honky Tonk Union
Real to Reel

(Emma Java Recordings)

Roger Clyne obviously didn't like the prospect of forever being cast as the smirking musical bard who fronted the Refreshments. That, more than anything, may explain both the faults and the merits of the debut album from his new band, the Peacemakers.

It's two albums, actually: Honky Tonk Union, a studio disc, and Real to Reel, a limited-edition live album. Still gun shy from the Refreshments' experience with Mercury Records, they decided to mix, produce and distribute the project themselves.

For the most part, Honky Tonk Union is a surprisingly strong and mature collection. Its songs branch off in new directions without completely abandoning the old Refreshments formula.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the record as a whole lacks a sonic and vocal punch.

The Refreshments had a diehard fan base, but were unfairly lambasted by critics because they: a) came from Tempe, b) sounded like the Gin Blossoms or c) wore shorts onstage. The reviews that actually focused on the music found them too cheeky or bereft of the "heavy" thought-provoking and emotional content that critics like to harp about.

But the band was tight, and with Clyne's ebullient vocal charisma and the sheer infectiousness of the songs, they were able to convert even the most reluctant listener. So, despite the highbrow resistance, the Refreshments sold a ton of records. By extension, Roger Clyne's unmatched fan dedication makes the Peacemakers virtually critic-proof.

Not surprisingly, the band is musically impressive. And they should be -- they've had more than a year of constant gigs. Drummer P.H. Naffah, the other Refreshments alum, is splendid, whether crashing through the cymbals on "Never Thought" or showing admirable restraint on softer country-tinged affairs like "Green & Dumb." Newcomer Danny White's rich tones and liquid bass lines complement the rhythm as well as augment the guitars.

Clyne's biggest coup in putting together the band was snagging two of the city's most distinctive guitarists, Scott Johnson and Steve Larson. Johnson's smooth, almost blithe picking is perfectly suited for Clyne's new direction, as is his ability to seamlessly alternate between styles and sounds. Although Johnson handles most of the lead duties on the studio record, Larson manages to pick and choose spots for his patented, soulful crunch.

"Beautiful Disaster" is the first and strongest track of Honky Tonk Union. Against a backdrop of thick rhythm and sinewy guitar lines, Clyne paints a broad canvas full of Springsteenesque imagery:

"Take the wheel the highway's clear/I got the throttle now, baby you steer/Let's squeeze every drop out of this machine/. . . Till this god damn rig can't run no faster/Baby, ain't we a beautiful disaster?"

Clyne has always proved successful at appropriating elements of the big, anthemic themes that Springsteen (and to a lesser extent, Tom Petty) specializes in without sounding derivative. Here, Clyne pays homage to the Boss in a much more direct manner, even nicking "Born to Run's" chord changes for the song's pre-chorus. With a respectful wink and nod, Clyne and company also lift the familiar glockenspiel bells from "Born to Run" to erase any doubt about the song's source.

The band quickly pulls off the interstate for the dusty byways of "West Texas Moon," "Honky Tonk Union" and "Tell Yer Momma." The songs have a decidedly country bent, but Clyne still reels in listeners with instinctive pop hooks and beguiling melodies.

"City Girls" is the album's best-produced cut, layering discreet stylistic touches: the bouncy twang of the electric guitar fills; the swell of the pedal steel; the gentle strum of the acoustic; the strategically placed backing harmonies. It's a collage of sounds that recalls both the country/pop of Steve Earle and the pop/country of Nick Lowe.

Tim Rovnak's moody Hammond organ brightens a number of tracks, as do the fattening horns on "Tow Chain" and "My Heart Is a U.F.O." But, unfortunately, the group's tinkering is wasted in other spots, most noticeably with the woefully misplaced piano break on "Honky Tonk Union."

The record gets some comedy relief by way of the breezy "Jack vs. José," the tale of a desert drifter who finds himself south of the Mason-Dixon line in search of an elusive shot of tequila, and in "My Heart Is a U.F.O.," a cheatin'-song-on-peyote about extraterrestrials and government conspiracies.

"Green & Dumb" is a wistful, lilting country waltz that shows off Clyne's unabashed romanticism, self-deprecating pathos ("If I weren't so empty in the head and tied up in the tongue"), and his gift for lyrical juxtapositions ("I haunt her house from the outside").

All in all, the record is a solid product; without exception the songs are well-crafted and tuneful. Its missteps seem to be the result of Clyne trying too hard to distance himself from his past and the lack of an objective producer. But by the end of the album, it becomes fairly obvious that Clyne wants his songwriting to speak for itself without relying on any musical or vocal pyrotechnics. While that intention is admirable and reflects a growing sense of faith in his work, unfortunately, it doesn't make for a very exciting-sounding record.

Take Clyne's vocals: All too often, he seems to hold back, curbing his inflections and altering his phrasing so as not to obscure the material -- which inadvertently takes the bite out of many of the songs. Clyne's greatest strength as a vocalist has always been his willingness to push himself to the brink, as he did on the Refreshments' independent debut, Wheelie. Even his conventional ballads, like "Una Soda" from The Bottle & Fresh Horses, have a controlled vocal freneticism that adds a greater sense of depth and vulnerability. Sadly, that's missing here. Even when Clyne does attempt to replicate his past vocal dexterity (as he does on the bridge to "My Heart Is a U.F.O."), it sounds forced and out of place.

The live album, Real to Reel, is being released as a limited-edition dual package with the first 2,000 copies of Honky Tonk Union. It's an outstanding effort overall, but one that only serves to highlight the problem with the studio disc. Six of the cuts are live versions of songs from Honky Tonk Union. There are also a pair of Refreshments covers ("Horses," "Mekong"), a spirited but by-the-book rendering of Steve Earle's 1986 hit "Guitar Town," and a band intro by Charlie Levy, doing his best Louie "Satchmo" Armstrong impersonation.

Real to Reel is a convincing testament to the Peacemakers' reputation as peerless and indefatigable live performers. Maybe it's unfair to compare a live album with a studio disc, as both have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. But one thing that can't be debated is that Clyne's song readings on Real to Reel are more evocative, the arrangements fuller, the dynamics greater. Larson is also given more space to work on the live recording (although, as a result of a bad signal, most of his parts had to be dubbed in later) making his guitar interplay with Johnson significantly more vibrant than on the studio effort.

In short, it's better, but more important, it's a more accurate characterization of their sound and songs.

Nonetheless, the musical and lyrical maturity of Clyne's new material shows he's trying to move away from that (unfair) "smirk rock" label. And who can blame him? The idea that he'll still be writing and singing songs like "Banditos" when he's 40 is more than a tad unseemly.

Real to Reel is dramatic proof that Clyne still has more than a few miles left in the tank. He's trying to grow old gracefully. On Honky Tonk Union, he does it too soon. -- Bob Mehr


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