COME THE LIES - The Drones (Spooky
S/T - Lowdorados (self released)
TRIPLE SKIN MARQUEE - Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringos (Empire Records)
STRANGER TO SOMEONE - Jason Walker (Laughing Outlaw Records)
RARER THAN ROCKING HORSE SHIT - The Bamboos (in your dreams)
MUST'VE BEEN LIVE - Supersuckers (Mid Fi/Desertones)
Wasn't it Neil Young who once asked, "Are you ready for some country?". I think he meant the music as much as any particular physical place. Actually, come to think of it, Neil might have said "the country", rather than "some country", but country music these days is too diverse for it all to be corralled in together under the one label.
When I think about country music in its traditional sense, which you can safely bet isn't too often, I think first of that Blues Brothers scene where the barmaid tells them that the bar has both kinds of music, country and western... Then I shiver a little. To me country music for the most part is whining rednecks, pedal steel guitars and (oh God no!) banjos. You know what I mean, your standard "horse 'n' divorce" anthems (though "guns, child brides and corn liquor" might be closer to reality). Oh, and also the occasional bit of execrable yodeling.
Okay, I'll put it bluntly. It's the work of sad old wankers like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and Charlie Rich and George Jones and the like (not Johnny Cash though; Johnny is a special case and as long as Indian and Mexican restaurants continue to serve dishes with plenty of chili, a heartfelt rendition of "Ring Of Fire" will always be rolled out by some repentant gourmand to commemorate that burning morning after feeling when you wish you'd had the foresight to slip a roll of toilet paper into the fridge before you collapsed into bed).
Let's not forget the ladies either, most noticeably the ever whining Tammy Wynette who stood by her man even though in real life he was a womanizing, alcoholic wife beater (and of course it did eventually end in D.I.V.O.R.C.E. anyway). That pretty much sums up country music for me: all too often just a cynical exercise in bare artifice and faked emotions, willingly swallowed whole and completely unchewed by a breathtakingly gullible audience whose capacity for intellectual thought has little correlation to its hat size.
What about Australian country music, you ask? Fuck, don't get me started. Bank clerks, plumbers and housewives pretending to be yanks in borrowed cowboy clobber, Stetsons or trucker's caps; bleating trite homilies in bogus American vernacular and a borrowed vocal style; counterfeit copies of something that was phony to its core to begin with. What a joke.
It took the Johnnys to see that the only way to tackle it honestly was to start at the joke and then progress from there. Not surprisingly, there weren't too many in the "country establishment" who took them to their hearts (the only way they'd have been invited to Tamworth would have been as the headlining performers at their own lynching), but rock audiences who were prepared to give them a chance were confronted with a band that always rocked hard while it was having its fun.
Spencer P. Jones was a key man in the Johnnys and went on to be a pillar of the Beasts of Bourbon with those other two mainstays of the real Australian country music, Tex Perkins and Kim Salmon. The Beasts had it all, from the swamp sounds of the Scientists (and the Cramps) to the rude, sneering "we have come for your daughters" dirty rock'n'roll of the Stones and the Pretty Things to the bottom of the whisky glass blues of Howlin' Wolf and Tom Waits (and yeah, with even a bit of old style country from those old farts I mentioned earlier thrown in as well), all done in an Australian voice
Since then, Spencer's solo work has continued consistently to be just as interesting and challenging. So finding out that this album by the Drones is on the same label that puts out Spencer's records meant that they automatically start with a few points on the board and they continued to rack up the points as the album worked through its 70-plus minutes of covers and originals (in roughly equal proportions).
However, let me give you a few words of warning first. Before you sit down to listen to this, you definitely have to be in the right mood, although I'm not exactly sure what that mood is. Perhaps just having arrived home direct from a distressing road rage incident would be helpful, because no way is this an hour of easy listening country favourites. Oh no. Opening up with "The Cockeyed Lowlife Of The Highlands", it's clear right from the start that this isn't the country music of embroidered cowboy shirts, big belt buckles and boot scootin'. This is music that lashes into you like a bad hangover on the worst morning of your life.
And it's unrelenting. These 12 tracks go for just over 72 minutes; that's six minutes each on average, except that half of them clock in at five minutes or less, which means that the other half therefore go for seven minutes or more. Don't be fooled either into thinking that the fast songs are all over quickly or that it's the slow songs that last the longest. When the Drones get a good grip on something (and I mean fingers wrapped firmly around the throat) they're not in any hurry to let go, no matter how fast they're going.
Comparisons with Nick Cave spring readily to mind (they do for the Cramps' "New Kind Of Kick" what he did for Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche") though the New Christs' "Bed Of Nails" might also be a valid reference point for some of the originals, like the anguished personal testimonies of "I'd Been Told" and "I Walked Across The Dam". At the same time the Drones aren't averse to the occasional serving of screaming feedback and white noise that harks back to Sonic Youth and through them to the Velvet Underground, raw and abrasive like the sound of someone having salt rubbed into an open wound.
Reputedly recorded virtually totally live in the studio, this is not so much an album as a snapshot. If they recorded these songs next week, next month or next year the whole thing would come out different each time; different, but doubtless just as challenging.
The Lowdorados share a lot in common with the Drones and I'm not just talking about musical taste, though certainly the Lowdorados don't mind covering the odd Drones' song when the occasion arises. Lowdorados front man James McCann and Drones guitarists Gareth Liddiard and Rui Pereira have also been known to share the stage with each other on more than one occasion when their paths have crossed at gigs. Perhaps not so surprising when you see that Mr McCann is listed on the cover of the Drones' album as an "X-Drone".
I've said it before and I'll say it again now: I cannot comprehend why no one's offering these guys a record contract. As a live band, the Lowdorados would have no trouble holding their own against all of the bands whose records are being reviewed on this page, yet all the Lowdorados have got to show for themselves at present is this four song CD, not so much a demo as "an expensive recording lesson" according to James McCann when this record was being handed out free to punters at one of the gigs late last year.
These days the Lowdorados are a very tight and consistent band with a magnificent "midnight to 3 a.m." repertoire. If you're too drunk to drive, but still plan to have one for road anyway, then these boys have got the right musical accompaniment for you. However in their early days they tended to be a bit shambolic at times, though always with flashes of real brilliance that hinted at greater things, so this E.P. is like stepping into a time machine.
All four of these songs still make fairly regular appearances in the live set (although I confess I haven't heard them do "Drunk And Tired" for a while), but here there's a rawness and a naive passion that I'd largely forgotten. You can still hear clearly the promise of what the band has now become, which is a practised and polished act that doesn't have to rely on accident and circumstance to help it achieve its musical vision, but this record captures moments when the bare wires were still visible.
Though more formally released than the Lowdorados effort, the Working Class Ringos' "Triple Skin Marquee" often isn't much easier to find in the shops, but it's well worth searching out nevertheless. "Harness Down", which I can't help thinking must be a reference in some way to Died Pretty's "Harness Up", although lyrically there doesn't seem to be any overt connection between the two, is a real standout both on record and in their live shows (which have been all too rare here in Sydney of late).
Aside from Frawley, who started out in Paul Kelly's first band the Dots before moving on to the Olympic Sideburns (Kelly renews the acquaintance on the song "Would You Be My Friend?"), the Ringos consist of Shane Walsh on (double) bass, Des Hefner on drums and the legendary Charlie Owen on just about every stringed instrument known to man, but with particular preference shown for the dobro. Owen also co-produced the album with Tony Cohen (within the Ringos' circle, apparently the two of them have since been dubbed "The Glummer Twins" for their efforts). Sometime Bad Seed Conway Savage also makes the occasional contribution to the band's sound on piano.
Despite the presence of even the dreaded banjo on occasion, the Ringos' brand of country owes much more to rock than to hillbilly music (think Stones a la "No Expectations" and "Sweet Virginia" - they even covered "Sweet Black Angel on their previous album, "Livin' Easy"). There's also the obligatory nod to Dylan; last time it was "Only A Hobo", this time it's "Walkin' Down The Line".
What the Ringos are best at is what, for want of a better handle, I call "morning after" music, uplifting dirges (even if that sounds like a contradiction in terms) perfect for those seemingly endless minutes while you're waiting for the coffee to boil and the first of the day's aspirin to kick in. There's at once a weary melancholy and a ragged optimism as Frawley sings of (and for) life's emotional walking wounded, maybe down for the count this time, but not yet ready to be counted out for good.
Jason Walker, on the other hand, is far more up beat and, well, conventional. Back when the Byrds were busy alienating all their old fans and at the same time annoying proponents of traditional country music, this was what you called country-rock - no mucking about, this was definitely it.
Walker not only covers Gram Parsons' "How Much I've Lied" on this album, he's also written a book about him ("Gram Parsons - God's Own Singer", also available from Laughing Outlaw I believe) and in concert he's been known to cover "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", the big "hit" from "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" (I'm not sure if it was ever even a single, but it's definitely the one song from that album that everybody knows), so Jason's not mucking about either.
Of the 13 tracks on this album, only four are Walker originals, but he takes care of the rest as caringly as if they were his own progeny too. Favourite track for me is the cover of Freedy Johnson's "The Lucky One". This was one of the standout tracks on the Laughing Outlaw sampler a while ago and I said then that I thought it was familiar but now that I know a bit more about it, I can't imagine where I could have heard it before, if indeed I ever had. I guess that will just have to remain one more of life's little mysteries. Bloody good song though.
Another stunning cover is Walker's take on Springsteen's "I Wish I Were Blind". Hmm, blindness seems to be fairly big in country, though when it comes to loss of sight the timeless "I'd Rather Go Blind" takes the white cane by a guide dog's wet nose in my book - though why the guide dog would have its wet nose in my book in the first place is yet another unsolved mystery - and didn't Rod Stewart used to do a marvelous cover of that song, before he devolved into his present silk wrapped caricature, back in the days when he was still just a throaty blues singer, simple and sincere and with a voice saturated in cheap whisky and late night nicotine.
Also of morbid curiosity is the cover of Johnny Paycheck's "Apartment #9". Bar reviewer Simon Li is an ardent fan of Johnny Paycheck and is always getting into my ear about him between songs at gigs, but since it's country music he's talking about I tend to tune out most of what he's saying (sorry Simon), but now at least I have a better mental image of what he's going on about.
The other covers range from stuff I really like, such as Danny O'Keefe's "Goodtime Charlie's Got The Blues" (what the fuck ever happened to him, his albums were consistently brilliant though perhaps a trifle difficult for those whose taste and imagination were as narrow as their definition of "country") and Tom Waits' "Up Shit Creek Again" to the more traditional (meaning whiny redneck trucker) "Streets of Baltimore" and "I'm Still Dreaming (Now I'm Yours)".
Walker's own "Other Side of the Bar" and "Tears" slot in neatly between those two camps. Although I'm hardly the appropriate person to be making any pronouncements about country music, I'd contend that neither of those songs, nor the title track for that matter, would sound out of place on an album by any of his heroes who he has covered here.
For my money, this Bamboos CD has it all - all the tracks from the original cassette only demo tape, both sides of the first single ("Snuff"/"Virginia"), all six tracks from the "Born Killers" E.P. and both sides of the final, magnificent "With Which To Love You" single ("the whole enchilada", as James Elroy would say). What a pity that no one has actually gotten around to putting this lot together officially. Unfortunately this is just a collection of amateur analogue to digital transfers, distilled by a mate from his old Bamboos vinyl (thanks Steve!) and neither offered nor intended for sale to the public, but even given the relatively lo-fi nature of the underlying technology behind this disc, these songs still sound remarkably fresh.
The Bamboos repertoire was a strange mixture of upbeat cowpunk, sometimes bordering on downright poppy ("Snuff" in particular has a distinct Hoodoo Gurus atmosphere about it), underpinning some extremely dark lyrics. I hesitate to speculate about what private fixations or frustrations might have led Craig Hallsworth to write so many songs about dead and dying women (and even one that isn't still "loves a graveyard in the rain").
I think there's fairly widespread agreement that the evocative and haunting "With Which To Love You" was their finest moment, but there were plenty of other moments worth celebrating and preserving too. I'm thinking particularly of "Law Of A Gun", "Drunk Highway", "To Hell With Love" and "Born Killer".
So what's the point of me telling you about a record that you can't buy because no one has both enough interest and sufficient funds to release it? None really; I just wanted to talk to someone about it and I figured that this here country muster was the only chance I am ever likely to get...
And so finally we arrive at the spectacle of the Supersuckers going crazy in the country. What? Huh? Aren't the Supersuckers from Seattle? Weren't they a Sub Pop band? Doesn't that mean like grunge, the whole Seattle sound thing? Power chords, not finger pickin'? What's up with this then?
That's apparently what the critics thought when the Supersuckers released "Must've Been High" back in 1997. I wasn't writing for the Bar then, or even aware of the album when it came out, so I missed my chance to contribute my voice to that chorus, but fortunately they've reprised it all (or at least all but two) on "Must've Been Live", so I guess I get my chance now.
According to the liner notes, the original intention was to call this album "False Starts And Fuck Ups", but aside from the fact that it might have been a marketing nightmare and certainly would have made it an uphill battle to get it through the doors of any of the big retail chains with a title like that, there just aren't that many false starts or fuck ups on it (unless you count the whole concept, though I don't think that's what they had in mind).
What there is though is an awful lot of country (no Willie Nelson, but his daughter Amy is a guest vocalist on one track) and even most of the Supersuckers originals sound like they wouldn't be out of place on country radio any time between say, 1958 and 1965 (though with the abundant drug references pushed right down in the final mix of course). There's a bit of rockabilly and even some slight traces of rock, but for the most part this is your traditional lonesome prairie, git along little doggie music, something you can listen to just as contentedly whether you're highballing your rig down the open road or just sittin' on the back porch hackin' at stuff with your whittlin' knife.
It starts out seductively enough with "Dead in the Water", "Roamin' 'Round" (you've heard Iggy Pop's "The Passenger"? Well, this is the passenger's country cousin) and "Roadworn and Weary", all strong songs with great chorus hooks, but "Good Livin'" in their midst is a harbinger of things to come, formulaic country things that is Jethro. As the album progresses, it's like being caught in a floodbound southern roadhouse full of truckers with limited musical tastes and an endless supply of coins for the juke box (yep, we've got both kinds here, country and western...), though "Must've Been High" brings a welcome respite in the middle of it. I can even imagine Tex Perkins doing something useful with that one.
Ultimately what saves the whole thing from being a complete charade is the band's good humour and honest approach. Whether or not you like this sort of country music, the band definitely sound like they were sure having a whale of a time making this record and their enthusiasm does prove infectious. - John McPharlin
Lowdorados (but I know they've got a 5 Beer album in 'em!)
Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringos
1/2 - Bamboos
1/2 - Supersuckers (or 4 Beers if you're predisposed towards this sort of thing)
BACK TO THE REVIEWS PAGE
BACK TO THE BAR