Drag the River
It’s Crazy.
Suburban Home Records

The “alt” in Drag the River’s alt-country label isn’t there because the band’s sound deviates much from traditional country music. It’s there just to serve notice that they don’t pull their ideas from the same worn sack of God and country bullcrap as what counts as non-alt. Otherwise, Drag the River sounds as country as they come.

Lyrical twists and counterpoint arrangements like the one that takes a jiggish little ditty, “Leaving in the Morning,” to a gallows pole with no time to catch a breath before the next-up swinging blues ride can be unsettling. But by the time “Me & Joe Drove out to California” rolls around—with its Springsteenesque storytelling put to music smooth and jovial enough for a CMT video—the song-to-song alteration jars less than it simply inspires admiration at the musicianly versatility. It’s not the last trick they’ve got, either.

A melancholy, dusty dirge (“Beautiful & Damned”) awash in the red of crying eyes and bleeding hands still waits, joined by more material suited to a whiskey-soaked and sawdusted roadhouse.

Good Time Charlie and Hard Luck Bill swap stools often enough on It’s Crazy that it’s never clear who’s gonna tap you on the shoulder when the track changes. Both, though, are steeped in enough sincerity and talent that, as “The Cause & the Cure” suggests, you’ll be having another round. (Jason Wiener)

Drag the River plays The Other Side Monday, Aug. 28, at 10 PM. $6.

The Martyr Index
It’s Called Rock N Roll
Meter Records

After one listen to The Martyr Index’s It’s Called Rock N Roll, the crashing trap drum, electric guitar and howlingly irate anarchist lyrics begin to stir that fire in your belly. After two, you forget that you like roads, public education and student aid. After three times through the four-song EP, you’re standing, fist in the air, yelling along with Mark Vermin and Meg Spinx’s outraged call-and-response in the proletariat rebellion anthem “1936”: “We built this city once/we’ll build this city again/this time we’ll do it for ourselves.”

These Canadian punksters have a cause, and they wear it on their outstretched, beating-heart-clutching, fist-clenching sleeves. “Hacienda Luisita” is a rhythm-driven history lesson about a violent revolt in the Philippines, while “Universal” delivers a gentler one-world message without losing any energy.

It’s easy to snicker at the group’s earnest righteousness—manifest in the cheesy anti-government voice-over on “Hacienda Luisita.” But it’s that kind of over-the-top impassioned politics that made punk punk in the first place, and The Martyr Index is here to insert some “Viva La Revolucíon” back into the scene. (Alyssa Work)

The Martyr Index plays at Caras Park Saturday, Aug. 26, as part of the Rock Against Racism concert. Show starts at 11 AM. Free.

Crash Romeo
Minutes to Miles
Trustkill Records

In the playlist parade of sugar-punk, a la Good Charlotte and Simple Plan, Crash Romeo has all the affected vocals and inane lyrics to fall right into step on the boulevard to MTV-land. In fairness, it should be noted that the New Jersey quintet includes proficient musicians and that their newest album, Minutes to Miles, has impeccably glossy production values. Problem is, the rebellious veneer is a little like a pair of Hot Topic pants: ripped in all the right places without a shred of authenticity.

The record’s themes in songs like “Die in Your Arms” vary little beyond romance and vague disillusionment while the vocabulary is limited to clichés like “your last kiss” and “one last breath.” Sometimes there’s a glimmer of the melodic rawness that made pop-punk band Jawbreaker so clever, but in the end Minutes to Miles lacks everything but suburban whine. Years later songs like “Serious” may even come back to haunt the band, especially the embarrassing line, “There’s a party in the back room with all the girls we’ve been through/and I looked for you but I guess you weren’t there.” Serious? They’ve got to be kidding. (Erika Fredrickson)

Crash Romeo plays the Union Hall Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 6 PM. On The Last Day, Grace Gale and The Sharktopus open. $7.

Gulag Orkestar
Ba Da Bing!

The brainchild of one-man-band Zach Condon, Beirut is as honest and inviting as an indie-flavored Eastern European folk effort can sound coming from a teenager in New Mexico. It’s an odd mix on the surface, but the deeper listeners dig into the 19-year-old’s textured and delicately produced 11-song debut, the more rewarding the adventure.

The musicianship on Gulag Orkestar is full of winsome acoustics (“Bandenburg”), whining brass horns (“Bratislava”), oompah-inspiring accordion (“Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)”) and syncopated hand percussion (“The Bunker”). The backgrounds change subtly from track to track, but Condon’s melancholy vocals are consistent throughout, sounding like a cross of David Byrne at his most haunting, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum and Nick Cave. The best example of Condon’s ability to stretch and still sound cohesive comes on the album’s biggest changeup—a rolling Latin-flavored lounge tune, “Postcards From Italy.”

Very rarely on Gulag Orkestar does Condon come across as young—only a few of the lyrics wallow in teenage naiveté—or even remotely American. He’s striving for an authentic Gypsy sound, and with this rich and far-reaching effort he drifts his way there with surprising acumen. (Skylar Browning)

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