By Ezekiel Wheeler and Stacy Coronis
When the fact that I write about music comes up in conversation people usually get a look in their eye like “I bet I could do that.” These people probably could. Maybe they’d do it better than me, maybe not. When my boyfriend told me he’d always wanted to review music I knew he could do it better than me. Seeing as he plays in multiple bands and plays multiple instruments, plus knows an insane amount about all kinds of music I thought we’d give this a try. He picked shows to go to and we went together. The first show is reviewed below. It was at the Middle East Upstairs on Friday, February 8, 2008, with Drag the River headlining. His reviews for each band come first and mine follow. Hope you enjoy.
Drag the River
Just as Garage and Psych bands continue to chase the elusive psychotic ghost of Roky Erikson’s mentally unstable genius, alt-country so chases Gram Parsons. Drag the River seeks to distill down the massive palette provided by years of country music into a relevant and insightful arrangement of country hooks, contemporary topics and hip indie sensibility. Success for the most part is theirs. On stage, the band is believable. Listening and watching them play, they look like a bunch of guys having fun playing songs they like. They manage to play country music without falling into the miserable pit of Americana-worship that is so often the weak point in such music. However, Drag the River is no Gram Parsons. Though their arrangements may be a clever re-hash of standard country idioms, they are still just that: the same old country music done with a different production sensibility. In the final summation, DTR delivers well what they promise to provide, but not much more. But I suppose that’s all we can really ask for eh?
I think I’m a bit more enthusiastic about Drag the River than that. I really enjoyed listening to them and watching them on stage. At the same time, it’s hard not to compare then to the bands that went before them that night, of which they were far superior. Even without comparisons, however, I thought they played some good, insightful country music and I liked the vocals a lot. Plus, major points for covering a Lenny and the Piss Poor Boys song.
If you like pop music but don’t want to admit it, this is your bag. The best part of catching a few songs by this band was that it reminded me of some really good times I’ve had. I remember a couple years ago on a steamy 4th of july night discussing what the most over-rated band in history was. There were many contenders, but the far-and-away winner was U2. This band reminds me of what I find so mediocre about U2. They also brought to mind seeing the Spinanes a decade ago in Oregon. Why? Because The Spinanes where good largely because of the stripped down concept, the minimalist approach to pop music. The Cassavettes at their best might sound like that, except made more detailed and complicated than necessary. Their attempts at sounding heartfelt are just that, attempts, and though the singer has some vocal abillity, all in all, this band seems to be pushing a lack of inspiration to it’s limits in a bid for success. I wouldn’t see them again. Of course in their defense, the Middle East upstairs has notoriously bad sound and could make Woody Guthrie sound like a 3-ring pop-rock circus.
Unmemorable. I had to look them up on myspace just to remember what the sounded like. It feels more pop than country, but neither works very well. Just not for me.
Girls Guns and Glory
This band was not at all what I was expecting. From the name I figured they where on the Social D/Mike Ness end of the “country” spectrum. I figured it was going to be some cheasily tatted sick-boy “oh I’m just born to lose” pseudo-punk/roots music. Not at all. It turned out to be a bakersfield-esque pop-country act. They try hard to deliver a persona of hard-livin’ country boys making some rockin’ country. My impression was a little more like if the cast of Kids in the Hall rode around in an 83 camaro listening to 70’s Merle Haggard and discussing if you’d be better off with a hot-air balloon or a submarine as an escape vehicle from a failed bank robbery. Anyway, I didn’t find their delivery of their lyrics terribly convincing. The singer actually has an excellent voice. I’d like to see him singing in a much more roots oriented setup, steel guitar, accordion, double bass, etc. He does a decent high-and-lonesom, even if he does it with a little too much affect. However the sound of the band is somewhere between Bakersfield, contemporary country and Chris Isaak. I think they where maybe trying to go for a Buck Owens sort of thing but let a bunch of crap pop-country influence sneak in and ruin it. I’ve always felt that the best country guitar players (even the busier ones like Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, or Speedy West) seem like they’re only playing with half their chops and have a mountain of power in reserve. The GG&G guitarist seemed like he was trying to prove how hard he could play, I’m surprised he didn’t give himself a hernia gyrating and doing hammer-ons and bends. A little much. That same criticism can be applied all around really. I think the bass player would have preferred to have been playing rush covers and could have stood to study Waylon Jenning’s mastery of simplicity a bit harder. The drummer was competent but with lack-luster beat placement. Definitely some talent and material here, but could certainly stand a somewhat wiser execution.
The picture in my head when I heard the band name was a group of chicks playing, maybe wearing leather and cowboy boots. Instead, I got a group of guys who didn’t fit their band name in the least. The band name was so inappropriate I actually found it distracting. I agree that the singer has an excellent voice, but it doesn’t work terribly well with what the band is trying to do. Also, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he belonged in an episode of Twin Peaks. I think it was the hair. Anyway, the stage presence of the guitarist and bassist were some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Total cheese. It was like they had watched some bad youtube videos and copied the worst stage moves possible — lots of walking around and posing, back-to-back playing, that sort of thing. And, if you’re going to play in a country/Americana band, please don’t bother if with a brand new, just out of the package, still creased “country shirt,” it looks silly. I think I would like the singer if went and did his own thing, but the band as a whole drove me to distraction.
Barn Burning was an opener I’d like to check back in with later. Fiddle, guitar, bass, drums and vocals. On the indie side, probably the best match as far as an opener for Drag the River. The band seemed somewhat awkward at times, like the songs where a little too new and hadn’t been vetted fully. I found the drummer to have an excellent sense of how to fill space and back-up his band mates. The fiddle serves on one hand to fill up the sonic spaces between the guitar and the vocals, but provides a root for the vocals to harmonize with, like the chanter and drone on a set of bag-pipes. The vocals were both intentionally shaky, and unintentionally shaky. Given time I think this band will smooth out into a solid alt-country act. Hardly groundbreaking, but certainly not without concept. I’ll try them again in a year.
We only caught one or two songs from these guys, but what I heard I liked. I agree that they need some more practice, but I’m a sucker for a fiddle. If they’re on a bill I’m seeing anyway, I definitely make sure to get there in time to see the whole set, but I don’t think I’ll make a point of going out just for them until they’ve spent a little more time together.
Random musical notes
I went to the Plough and Stars last Monday night to check out my friend spin at the DJ night. It was my first time at the Plough’s DJ night and I’d go again. There was good music and it was relaxed. I’ll be hitting up a bunch of shows in March, but I think the one I’m most excited for is Lenny and the Piss Poor Boys at the Middle East. Yes, I know I talk about them a lot, but they’re worth the hype.