Music News

Truckers on Speed

For local-music aficionados, there always seem to be a few trends without explanation, questions that go inexplicably unanswered. One that's vexed most observers in recent years is the lack of capable (or even willing) exponents of the much-maligned alt-country genre. For a city with a rich history of country and punk music -- the twin pillars of the style -- there has been a genuine dearth of acts jumping in on a boom that's exploded in cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Austin.

Certainly, there have been Valley bands like the Revenants and Flathead, whose work has been recognized under the general banner of alt-country. But at their core, those groups are essentially revivalists. And with apologies to the Grievous Angels (and their claims to have crossed the Replacements with Lefty Frizzell), it seems that even they would be more accurately tagged as neo-traditionalists rather than a genuine postmodern hybrid.

So it remains that the Valley music scene, for all its promise, hasn't produced the true great alt-country record. Happily, that's about to change with the release of No Sense in Runnin', the full-length debut from Truckers on Speed.

From the lilting crunch of "Zamora, CA" to the lovelorn nuance of "Bookmark," the 10-song disc is rich with vagabond tunes and road-worn laments, the kind that usually seem convincing only when sung by artists with a lot more gray around the temples than this group of Tempe twentysomethings.

The outfit has humble roots -- first as a local female-fronted pop quartet, 10th & Ash, then later as a Seattle-based coffee country cello and guitar duo. Together for more than a year in its current incarnation (though most of it under the recently discarded Shoeless Joe moniker), the group has earned a reputation for a winning synthesis of trad country and postpunk that marked the best work of No Depression godheads Uncle Tupelo (to underscore the point, the two groups share a very similar covers list -- "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Dead Flowers," etc.).

Fortunately, the group is more than just a run-of-the-Mill Avenue clone, primarily because they possess a sense of musicianship uncommon for most local acts. In this regard, they're led by Theron Wall, a classically trained cellist, who plays his bass less as a rhythm instrument than as a steadfast counterpoint to the harrowed vocals of lead singer Dave Wolfmeyer. Just as the songs claim a familiar musical lineage, so too does the lead guitar work of Chad Hines, who spends most of his time picking at the ghost of Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten. Drummer Michael Wood remains a versatile yet unobtrusive force behind the kit.

Like so much alt-country -- with its fusion of C&W themes, punk sensibility and rock 'n' roll energy -- No Sense in Runnin' boasts a familiar sound -- even derivative, some would argue.

Admittedly, there is a very definite stream of influence that pervades the record, much of it local. Hints of Dead Hot Workshop and Green on Red flash at various points, while the whole of the disc has a melodic flair noticeably reminiscent of the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies, if for no other reason than both outfits share an obvious affection for the dystopian country of Neil Young.

Lyrically, the songs look further East, calling to mind the aged, dusty tales of Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and spiritual heirs like Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle.

Unlike so many insurgent country acts (think most of the Bloodshot Records roster), TOS manages to avoid the pitfalls common to the genre. Instead of avoiding the typical clichés, the Truckers embrace them, turning them on their heads and thus to their advantage. The "One for the money/Two for your show" chorus of the elegiac "Desert Sun" would seem a tongue-in-cheek declaration (if not downright laughable) in the hands of a lesser outfit. But buoyed by the tar and whiskey in Wolfmeyer's voice and the ragged twang of Hines' guitar, it's instead recast as a very sincere and very literal conceit.

The band has no furtive thematic leanings; like its influences, TOS also wears its subject matter very much on its sleeve. Relapse and recovery -- whether it's a descent into alcoholism, melancholia or self-pity -- are the overriding themes, and they're delivered with a seemingly incongruous mix of naiveté and 12-step insight, resulting in a kind of humble cross between Pet Sounds and Tonight's the Night.

As the group's chief songwriter, Wolfmeyer's language is simple, yet always evocative, as he recounts the lives of the young and upwardly immobile -- the kind of characters usually reduced to the bitter margins of society. The best example is "Tales of a 25-Year-Old Nothing," a bruised declaration of postadolescent freedom and failure (that song, coupled with "Heart at Home" -- also included on Runnin' -- were released last year as a free promotional single, marking the band's auspicious debut).

Elsewhere the off-time acoustic rumination of "All the Pretty Horses" (which owes a debt to Ron Wood's lost 1974 solo treasure "Mystifies Me," a song covered by Son Volt on its 1995 watershed Trace) is highlighted by a bed of cello and pedal steel that swells beneath the resplendent harmonies of Wall and Wolfmeyer.

The furious stomp of "Burn You Down" and "Better An" prove that the group is capable of breaking out of its midtempo comfort zone with a cow-punkish display of three-chord mastery that doesn't sacrifice the emphasis on songcraft so integral to the group's dynamic -- an area where the Truckers draw favorable comparisons to other rowdy redneck types like the Bottle Rockets and Georgia Satellites.

Name checks aside, the record stands as an impressive achievement on its own. From roaring uplift to plaintive meditations, the Truckers' music instinctively resonates with the kind of authenticity and power that eludes most groups at this stage. Part of that may be the inherent magic in their alchemy of styles, but part of it is something else. Sure, there's the requisite Sticky Fingers swagger and On the Beach dissonance, but those are merely convenient signposts. If it were just about its influences, No Sense in Runnin' would be a great record. As it is, it's a whole lot more.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr