Always expect the worst. And sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised.
This is what I kept telling myself the day I noticed the Andre the Giant graffiti art beginning to fade on the light pole on Avenue A, not too long after hearing a vicious rumor that hard-working downtown rockabilly surfpunkers Simon & the Bar Sinisters had thrown in the towel on the New York scene and were moving out to sunny, pay-to-play L.A.
But then my answering machine lit up with the good news that the move was just a trip and that there would be one more great Ludlow show before the band's depature to celebrate the release of singer Simon Chardiet's first CD, a gut-thumping, searing blast of everything smart-assed, bug-eyed and wonderful called Surf Av. (Master Cylinder).
All the essentials are here, including the tongue-wagging "Hangin' Out (For Your Love)," a swaggering version of "Thinkin' With the Wrong Head" and a cackling slap-back take of the obscure rockabilly gem, "Woodpecker Rock," that's so perfectly produced by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel you'll swear you hear Simon deep-throating the Coyote Studio mike at song's end. Or is that the sound of the waves crashing on the tires lining the south Brooklyn shores in "Surf the Wild Gowanus?"
Just buy the damned thing before it disappears. And check out the like-minded self-titled debut CD by Nashville notebenders Los Straitjackets (Rounder), a twang- and distortion-drenched slab of chicken-pickin' Telecasters that comes roaring out of the box with all the fury of an unmasked Mexican wrestler.
Also feel free to gawk at the deliciously sleazy, frantic '50s and '60s rockabilly twitching and lurching all over Sin Alley Part One -- 30 Real Gone Rockabilly & R&B Howlers (Crypt), a slimy part of this Staten Island label's line of fabulous low-fi roots reissues. High-octane hillbilly hoppers like "Teenie Weenie Man," "Wild Hog Hop" and "Slip, Slip, Slippin' In" will have you squealing like a platypus in heat.
For a bit more subtle -- though equally incendiary -- tour of the revved-up, retro-redneck musical landscape, just stow away on a truck bound for the Windy City or ask your honey to order you up one of them crackling "insurgent country" compilations, For a Life of Sin and Hellbent, from Chicago's Bloodshot Records.
For a Life of Sin profiles the wide range of cowpunk, rockabilly and alternative country acts working the surprisingly fertile Chicago roots scene, including the fab Freakwater, ex-Mekon Jon Langford's Hillbilly Lovechild and the fantastic Robbie Fulks, who turns in an Alabama-slammin' (the band, not the state) ode to his North Carolina birthplace on the infectious, hummable knee-slapper, "Cigarette State." Fulks offers up another gem, "She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)," on Hellbent.
But the real stars of this mostly out-of-town show are NYC's semi-retired World Famous Blue Jays (delivering a nice & fat "Mad Flap Boogie" that makes us long for a return of the sorely missed Diesel Only scene) Detroit's harmonizing Volebeats and Dallas's rollicking Old 97s, whose debut CD, Hitchhike to Rhome (Big Iron), offers more of this peppery Texas swang, hiccupy honky tonk kinda thang.
The Southern country underground seems to have finally reared its long-dormant head in a big way, with even soul-less Atlanta jumping on the anti-Garth roots rock revival bandwagon.
Bubbapalooza, Volume One -- Chronicle of the Redneck Underground (Sky) actually makes one want to visit the strip-malled home of the 1996 Olympics, if only to search out the high-cholesterol stuff being churned out by bands like The Delta Angels ("Cabbagetown"), The Diggers ("She's Breakin' My Heart (While I'm Drinkin' Her Beer))" and Slim Chance & the Convicts ("George Jones (Has Never Sung About My Girl))."
If it's greasy redneck stomp you crave, then it's Hayseed Timebomb (Crypt) by Kentucky's Nine Pound Hammer you'll be wanting. Capable of delivering a metallic hardcore blast the size of a rust-chewing trailer park pit-bull, this stripped-down foursome rocks harder and sings a lot better than Social Distortion and transforms the old train song, "Wreck of the Old 97," into a high mountain slamfest. Nothing fancy. Just a stress-busting whoop of release from a place where hell is just another word for "stranded outside Tater Knob with just a JUGGS magazine."
There's a whole lot of whooping and a little too much yelping going on A Blazing Grace (Mammoth), the long-awaited reunion CD from Nashville's '80s cowpunk pioneers, Jason & the Scorchers. While it's great to hear guitarist Warner Hodges rocket John Denver's "Country Roads" into a scary, gnashing place it never dreamed of going, lead singer Jason Ringenberg's bleating vocal style starts to wear thin mighty quickly. One more reason for some bands to stay out there beyond the sunset after riding off into it.
Not so for Wilco, the crashingly melodic roots rock creation that rose from the ashes of southern Illinois country rockers Uncle Tupelo. Believe all the hype about the band's debut, A.M. (Sire) a gorgeous blend of pedal steel, power chord crunch and achingly ragged harmonies.
And don't be too embarrassed to admit you're hooked on the Burritos-meet-Badfinger vibe that makes The Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass (American) the disc of choice for those bittersweet pre-dawn moments when you regret just about everything and everyone you've ever done for just about two long seconds.
If that don't cut it, then apply a liberal dose of The Brooklyn Side (ESD), the deeply satisfying, Eric Ambel-produced sophomore effort from Festus, Missouri's hard-rocking Bottle Rockets. Even though this dense slice of country-tinged Southern rock came out eons ago (late 1994, when I was still puttering along the Texas-Mexico border), it's so damned good I just had to tell someone about it. So there.
I won't waste my breath yelling about Alex Chilton's latest, A Man Called Destruction (Ardent). It's not that kind of record. Just a pleasantly stuttering, stacatto chunk of slashing New Orleans r&b guitar ("Sick and Tired"), sweet '70s soul ("What's Your Sign Girl") and goofy surf pop (Brian Wilson's "New Girl in School"). All served up in a casual, nasal drawl that'll make you wonder once again how this scrawny pop legend ever rasped out "The Letter" without cracking a sardonic smile.
Don't ask barrel-chested Texas roadhouse veteran Don Walser. He's got the kind of clear, piercing high honky tonk tenor that'll break up a bar-room fight before the participants ever even think of entering a smoke-filled room. And he can sing the hell out of hard country standards like Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Shotgun Boogie" and Jimmie Rodgers's "California Blues (Blue Yodel #4)." He's a big man with a big repertoire and even bigger new disc, Rolling Stone From Texas (Watermelon).
Dale Watson is a very skinny man. But he's also from Texas, which is a big place (and don't you forget it, OK?) known for its prodigious crop of low-register honky tonk singers (a.k.a., Lefty Frizzell, George Jones).
On his debut album, Cheatin' Heart Attack (HighTone), Watson proves he's got the goods to kick Randy Travis's hairsprayed Tarheel butt and the songwriting skills to go head to head with his well-chosen role model, Merle Haggard. "I'm too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash," pleads Watson on the autobiographical "Nashville Rash." "Help me Merle I'm breaking out in a Nashville rash!"
If only someone had the guts to burn down all the Denim & Diamonds in the world and replace them with dirty, low-ceilinged bars with loud, loud jukeboxes, then Watson would stand a fighting chance of ridding his body of this nasty Music City dermatological disorder.
So join us in our crusade to vanquish all line-dancing fools and anyone who likes Hootie and the Blowfish. The next time you find yourself moved to gyration by a hard thumping country or rockabilly beat, flail uncontrollably and spill your drinks on the nearest starched-shirt, baseball-hat-wearing Upper East Side frat boy. You'll be making the world a better place.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Master Cylinder, 67 Pitt St., NY, NY 10002; Upstart, P.O. Box 44-1418. W. Somerville, MA 02144; Crypt, P.O. Box 140528, Staten Island, NY 10314-0258; Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613-4339; Big Iron, 5242 Richard Ave., Dallas, TX 75206; Sky, P.O. Box 724677, Atlanta, GA 31139-1677; Mammoth, Carr Mill, 2nd Floor, Chapel Hill, NC, 27510; ESD, 530 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis, MN 55401; Ardent, 2000 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN 38104-2794; Watermelon, P.O. Box 402088, Austin, TX 78704; HighTone, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607; Krazy Kat, Interstate Music, 20 Endwell Rd., Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex TN40 1EA, England.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe