ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
March 21, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Perhaps you have noticed how many americana, alt.country and roots music songs are about alcohol. I mention this simply by way of saying that drinking songs don't make me want to imbibe and more than murder ballads make me want to take a life. I also steer clear of drugs, hate the smell of cigarettes and The Evil Weed, and have only recently re-abandoned myself to the demon caffeine. Hate being tipsy, find losing control embarrassing, haven't grown a beard in nearly a decade.
Let me know when I start breaking hearts and shattering preconceptions.
So what's my response upon hearing Old 97s' excellent new Graveyard Whistling record, especially during songs like "Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls" or "Drinkin' Song" (I'll leave you to figure what that one's about)? By my book, I don't think there's a band around that might be more fun to hoist a pint to, to shoehorn myself into a crowded and sweaty bar with my peers and abandon myself to THE GREATEST ALT.COUNTRY BAND of OUR TIME.
Of course, the guys' early stuff pretty much defined the genre. I'd hold up Too Far To Care, Fight Songs and Satellite Rides against any three other consecutive contemporary alt.country records. And if Old 97s wandered a bit after that, there's was always a reason to listen to each consecutive record. Then 2014's gloriously debauched Most Messed Up served to remind us that all who wander are not lost (to quote Rhett Miller by way of Bilbo Baggins). Frontman Rhett Miller is the Peter Pan of the roots world, the ageless and, let's face it, unnecessarily handsome Dorian Gray of our kind of music. While he could have easily chosen to ride those looks and that hair all the way out of the alt.country ghetto to Superstardom behind the strain of syrupy ballads and smoldering romantic glances, he's always played more of the clueless best friend, the brainy geek who could turn heads simply by removing his coke bottle lenses and investing in a more effective conditioner.
Like several of the songs on Graveyard Whistling, "I Don't Wanna Die In This Town" is built on a dirty coal-fueled chug, a wild wild west spirit that the band honors on a record jacket photo of the boys peering out from behind bandannas. Guitars blaze like six-string six-guns, while drums stumble like a drunken cowboy who's accidentally found the basement stairs. And while the music is hell bent for leather, it's far from vapid stuff. Sure, there's those drinkin' songs, but they're thinkin' man's drinkin' songs.
And just as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, Rhett & co. ponder the tick-tick-tick of their days on tunes like "Good With God". In a genius stroke, Brandi Carlile plays the voice of god herself, countering Rhett's confident swagger with some food for doubt: You should be scared / I'm not so nice. / Many a man has paid the price ... / I'll break you down. / I'll do it slow how does that sound? / You're just a joke that's goin' round. The song is one of the best of the roots music year, especially when paired with a chaser of "Jesus Loves You". Another burner, it's also the record's biggest laugh: He's got the whole world in his hands / I've got a Lone Star in cans. And I'm bringin' one over to you.
Not necessarily grad level theology ... But what saves the group from being simply another band with whiskey, weed and women on their agenda is that there's some depth to songs such as "All Who Wander" or 'Turns Out I'm Trouble". Don't go so far as to call it soul searching, but there's some conscience and self awareness to lyrics like this: My trashcan heart just rattles 'round / I promise you I'm nothing but trouble / You got to turn me down. Rhett warns that he's trouble, but he does it as often to admit his brokenness as to brag on himself.
"All Who Wander" strikes the LP's truest chord, soft touch acoustic verses trading with a singalong chorus for the ages. I must cling to that which kills me. / I must lose my heart's desire. / I must wind up warm and wasted. / With a flat screen for a fire. While it's the drinking songs that will garner the spins, I'll predict that these more mindful tracks will carry the day on Routes & Branches. Graveyard Whistling isn't the sound of a band of dads raging embarrassingly beyond their expiration date. It's a collection that's thoughtful as often as it's kick-ass. The songs endear you with their charms and then knock you off your chair with their sheer energy and zeal.
So ... raise one for me next time you're sharing your personal space with bearded men and tattooed ladies when you're lucky enough to catch this praiseworthy outfit in their element. Build your buzz while Rhett intones sagely, Hell yes hell yes hell yes hell yes / Right on right on right on ... . And please don't judge me for my shortcomings.
- Lucinda Williams, "Sweet Side" World Without Tears (UMG, 03)
- Lindi Ortega, "What a Girl's Gotta Do" Til the Goin' Get Gone (Shadowbox, 17)
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Going That Way" Heart-Shaped Mountain (Bloodshot, 17)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Champagne Corolla" Kids in the Streets (New West, 17)
- Scott H Biram, "Still Around" Bad Testament (Bloodshot, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "Station Blues" Postcards (Lustre, 17)
- Dead Man Winter, "I Remember This Place Being Bigger" Furnace (GNDWire, 17)
- Will Johnson, "Every Single Day of Late" Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm (Undertow, 17)
- Craig Finn, "Tangletown" We All Want the Same Things (Partisan, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Jump For Joy" What in the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Timothy Seth Avett as Darling, "Disappointing You" IV (Ramseur, 17) D
- Robyn Hitchcock, "Hurry for the Sky" Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc, 09)
- Sharon Van Etten, "End of the World" Resistance Radio: Man in the High Castle Album (Sony, 17) D
- Jade Jackson, "Finish Line" Gilded (Anti, 17) D
- North Mississippi Allstars, "Long Haired Doney" Pray for Peace (Songs of the South, 17) D
- RL Burnside, "Snake Drive" Mr Wizard (Fat Possum, 97)
- Hurray for the Riff Raff, "Life to Save" Navigator (ATO, 17)
- Valerie June, "Love You Once Made" Order of Time (Concord, 17)
- Blackfoot Gypsies, "I Had a Vision" To the Top (Plowboy, 17) D
^ Old 97s, "All Who Wander" Graveyard Whistling (ATO, 17)
- Angaleena Presley, "Only Blood" Wrangled (Mining Light, 17)
- Colter Wall, "Thirteen Silver Dollars" Colter Wall (Young Mary's, 17)
- K Phillips, "Dirty Wonder" Dirty Wonder (Rock Ridge, 17)
- Ags Connolly, "Slow Burner" Nothin' Unexpected (At the Helm, 17)
- Bobbie Gentry, "Mississippi Delta" Ode to Billie Joe (Capitol, 67)
- Casey James Prestwood, "King of All Losers" Born Too Late (CJP, 17) C
- Holly Macve, "No One Has the Answers" Golden Eagle (Bella Union, 17)
- Fifth on the Floor, "Distant Memory Lane" Dark and Bloodied Ground (Fifth, 10)
- Rodney Crowell, "East Houston Blues" Close Ties (New West, 17)
- Whiskey Gentry, "Dead Ringer" Dead Ringer (Pitch-a-Tent, 17) D
ROUTES-cast on the rocks: