We're more than halfway through 2000, and a few recently released records have that air of greatness -- that weighty permanence, a usefulness. Records you can take home, and with each listen they offer something new. There's the Jayhawks' latest, Tsar's debut, Warren Zevon's comeback, and this, Speedbuggy USA's Cowboys and Aliens.
What's funny is at the outset, Cowboys and Aliens appeared to be just another 12-song batch of unabashedly backward-looking hick punk that reeked of shtick. Stuff played by guys from some smoggy metropolis who took to cowboy hats after ogling old X album jackets, adopting bad, unintentionally condescending Georgia drawls copped from Dukes of Hazzard reruns.
You know the type: dudes pompous in pompadours, with tats of pinup chicks and dice, calling places like Seattle or San Diego home, wishing upon themselves bad white-trash heredity and romanticizing states they've never set foot in, like Texas and Arizona. I thought Cowboys and Aliens was made by a bunch no less reprehensible than Mötley Crüe or the mooks that make up Limp Bizkit.
So the trendy and cynical tack here would've have been to malign the band for outfitting themselves in retro duds and adopting a by-the-numbers cowpunk posture.
But, as we all know, musical rewards are often found in the unlikeliest places. Once again, I learned never to become so jaded and bitter that I toss a record into the trade pile based on a preconceived notion drawn from a bad publicity photo or something somebody else said. As we get on in years, we grow harder to impress, our skin gets a bit thicker, our skepticism comes more from experience than pose.
Which is why I derive a more than a small sense of gratification and appreciation for this new Speedbuggy record. I mean, I'm grateful as all hell for any record that can give me the goose bumps.
Yet, Cowboys and Aliens manages to recycle nearly every punk rock and cowpoke trend to cycle through in the years immediately leading up to the demise of Jason and The Scorchers. Sure, Speedbuggy cribs shamelessly from its record collection, but it does so with a genuine consideration, with a genuine respect. The results are anything but shameful. The disc is littered with self-deprecating trash-talkin' and lovely revved-up tales of woe; and there's that necessary twist placed just at the precise moment you suspect the tune will lapse into the predictable and banal. Cowboys and Aliens is unfailingly droll and a thing of wretched, drunken splendor. A Southern twang here, pedal steel hook there, melody everywhere.
And Speedbuggy makes it all sound so easy. Good songwriting is all about making it sound easy. Picture the Supersuckers with a melody; Social D minus the AA dogma and spineless posturing; Reverend Horton Heat with a fatter grin.
You get the sense that these songs are from guys harboring an uneasy alliance with rural underbellies. It'd be no leap of imagination to picture them tipping cows under big cobalt skies, swilling draft beer from tainted taps and leaning from pickup truck windows using ivory-handled pistols to shoot out mailboxes on two-lane country highways. Guys who wouldn't think twice about using their boot heels to rudely grind out cigarettes on your front porch. It's a record made by dudes not yet done with -- or dead from -- drinking.
"Our music is extremely alcohol-fueled," chortles Speedbuggy singer/lyricist Timbo over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He's in the process of packing for a two-week jaunt through Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Florida. "Without alcohol, this band wouldn't be around. Believe me, I've been hunched over a toilet many days in my life."
Besides the booze, the band manages to replicate everything from obscure country records to Orange County and U.K. punk on Cowboys and Aliens -- yet they've got the songs to pull it off. Timbo refers to the style as a collision of George Jones and Motörhead.
"There's a lot of bases to our music," he says. "A lot of artists like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones and Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson -- that whole outlaw thing that came around. I think we owe equally to a lot of punk rock bands. Anything from Stiv Bators to Johnny Thunders to Hüsker Dü to the Clash. All the old stuff. I'm really not into any new punk. Or so-called 'cowpunk' bands that take a 1-4-5 song and speed it up. Most of this country kind of hick shit is just stuff that I have kind of seen and lived and done. It's actually cool because we like to think that we didn't try to do what everybody else was doing just to get a deal. We just said, 'Fuck it, let's play what we want to play.'"