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Remembering It's Rock

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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."

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr