There’s no shortage of alt-country rock—or, as I prefer to call it, rural road trip rock—in the U.S. of A. As you read this, 27 bands across the nation have just this second gotten together for their first practice session and agreed that they are all inspired by Wilco and Uncle Tupelo.
Fortunately for the rest of this large pack, Wilco has left an opening by releasing A Ghost is Born, an unsatisfying stab at avant-garde experimentation that has left countless fans struggling to like it. In steps Cub Country, led by former Jets to Brazil bassist Jeremy Chatelain, with an extraordinary debut of dusty rock twang and rainy-day ballads. Stay Poor/Stay Happy doesn’t really settle into its natural rhythm until the third track, “Good Job Jer Blues,” a fun game of aural hopscotch whisked along by upright bass and even some (never thought I’d say it) well-placed yodel-wails. It only gets better from there, reaching a pinnacle on “The West,” in which an Allman Brothers riff meets bubblegum bounce with a chorus that asks “What happened to the open spaces?”
Indeed, open spaces abound on this debut, allowing the well-wrought songwriting to take its rightful place at center stage. Yeah, it’s still a crowded field, but if Wilco’s abdication has left any room in your alt-country storage shed, Cub Country is worth the shelf space. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)Steve Earle
The Revolution Starts…Now
Whoever thought that the country singer-songwriter behind “Guitar Town,” a perennial selection in jukeboxes from Texas to Montana, would eventually release an album with a punkish chorus of “Fuck the FCC/Fuck the FBI/Fuck the CIA?” Few, probably, yet Steve Earle is quickly becoming America’s foremost political—or at least most controversial—semi-mainstream songwriter. His last offering, Jerusalem, featured a song about John Walker—the American who joined the Taliban—that caused several right-wing talk radio mouthbreathers to throw a collective conniption fit.
Earle’s new release, The Revolution Starts…Now, will probably give Rush and the gang an even bigger hemorrhage, as Earle’s scratchy baritone sings of poor boys fighting rich men’s wars. What makes The Revolution interesting is Earle’s skillful mixing of gut-reaction immediacy with more cerebral poetics. True, Earle castigates assorted federal agencies with a shower of unimaginative obscenities, but he also presents the stuff of sonnets, as on the Jim Morrison-style spoken word track “Warrior”: “Your faithful retainer stands resolute/To serve his liege lord without recompense/Perchance to fall and perish namelessly.”
With a heated presidential election drawing near, it’s difficult to evaluate this political album in strictly musical terms. But if nothing else, it is likely to attain historical relevance as a portrait of resistance to empire. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)Broken Valley Roadshow
The Sunset Sessions
Eight, as the late-’70s sitcom suggested, is enough—just right, in fact, when it comes to bluegrass. The number seems to be working nicely for Broken Valley Roadshow, anyhow, a group that utilizes the talents of all eight of its members on its debut, The Sunset Sessions.
In what amounts to a seldom-seen (notwithstanding The Seldom Scene) understanding of teamwork, no one member of Broken Valley cuts another out of the picture, a feat made all the more impressive when one considers that the band only recently hatched from its bluegrass eggshell in fair Missoula. Mandolin player and singer Nate Biehl and fiddler Carrie Stensrud play off one another wonderfully on the slow-swooping “Sin City,” reaching that dead-flowers emotional pitch that is both happy and sad, the intoxicating ingredient that keeps bluegrass seekers sated. On the upbeat stomps such as the instrumental “Mobile Acres,” Matt Cornette’s banjo doesn’t let up for one hot-pickin’ minute.
But more than anything else, The Sunset Sessions is a soundburst of rich vocal harmonies evincing an underlying gospel soul. And for those Missoulians out there wondering if this Garden City octet is “keeping it real,” yes, there is a song about a dog on there. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)
Broken Valley Roadshow will perform at the Union Club on Saturday, Sept. 18. Frausdots
Couture, Couture, Couture
It’s getting harder and harder to remember a time when the good ship Sub Pop was steered by the grimy likes of Mudhoney, The Fluid and Nirvana. Bands like Beat Happening and the Walkabouts, for all their local credibility, appeared to have walked into the wrong biker bar wearing flood pants and tie-dyed skirts.
Nowadays, though, anything goes: the chiming pop of the Shins, the sun-staring garage psychedelia of Comets on Fire, and now, with Frausdots, the synth-laced life-in-a-northern-town bringdown of vintage Echo and the Bunnymen. Frausdots is the brainchild of former Beachwood Sparks member Brent Rademaker, who claims he was always “the psychic bassist who wrote the music” for that band.
“If I hadn’t been playing second fiddle in any band I’ve ever been in,” he explains in the press materials accompanying Couture, Couture, Couture, “I would have made this record right out of high school.”
Other former Sparks—including Dave Scher, who teamed up with Jimi Hey to create last year’s fabulous Spirit Stereo Frequency under the name All Night Radio—might take issue with Rademaker’s claims to songwriting primacy, but Couture, Couture, Couture lends considerable weight to Rademaker’s words. Sounds like Northern England circa 1985, fairly haunted by the ghosts of Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant et. al. Let’s drink and take pills! (Andy Smetanka)