This week we’ll be doing a triple threat of reviews, each shorter than my usual standard for reviews.
Songs of the Plains, Colter Wall
After last week’s defense of throwback rockers Greta Van Fleet, I’m having trouble mustering up the same defense for the throwback cowboy Colter Wall. My only familiarity with him comes from his 2015 EP Imaginary Appalachia, which was an excellent alt-country record with heavy Dead South influences. It was the country counterpoint to the new style of blues Bones of JR Jones voiced in Dark Was The Yearling. It was an inspiring record, “Johnny Boy’s Bones” not withstanding. So naturally I felt compelled to weigh in on Wall’s 2018 record Songs of the Plains.
Somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams sits this album. The opening track of Songs is straight Guthrie. An almost comical caricature of a classic cowboy. The instrumentation is a jangly rhythm and cliché chords that don’t sound much different from what you might hear a hobo play on a boxcar to Saskatchewan in 1934, praying Mr Roosevelt will relieve his pain and settling for moonshine to do that job until then. The theme of romanticizing the poor farmer finds itself on more tracks than it doesn’t on this album. Conjuring images of a poor man living on the land all on his own and having to struggle to keep it that way which are somehow more accurate a sonic interpretation of Grapes of Wrath than Bruce Springsteen’s album in that book’s honor The Ghost of Tom Joad.
The music varies from the tired tropes that Pete Seeger trod on to the more complicated but no more original slide guitar and harmonica accompaniment like you’d hear on a Willie Nelson album. “Calgary Round Up” in particular sounds like a top 40 country hit from 1963. It just leaves me wondering what Wall is bring to the Americana dialogue. Throwback music has it’s place and, let’s face it, I didn’t like Merle Haggard when Merle was the one releasing it. But I just feel like there’s so many other copycats of that style, Wall is failing to make his own sound distinct from them, just blending into the crowd of guitar wielding country men.
The Quarry, Mercy Union
New Jersey punk “super group” (the drummer from Gaslight Anthem and the guitarist from The Scandals feels like weak sauce for a super group, but the punk press begs to differ) Mercy Union released their debut album on October 19th and I was looking forward to it. Brian Fallon and Benny Horowitz have been the only ex-Gaslight members to stay active in music, and Horowitz has mostly been in a supporting role for other bands like Antarctigo Vespucci.
Mercy Union, however, leaves something to be desired. The songs blend into a haze of the harder edge of pop punk with a scratchy vocal singing uninspired lyrics over riffs and guitar tones just a little too familiar to my ears. I’ve never seen Mercy Union live, but I feel like I’ve seen them a dozen times, opening for more interesting bands like AJJ or Saintseneca. They’re the reason I stopped going to shows early enough to see opening acts (and Black Pistol Fire is the reason I still sometimes do). I’m listening to The Quarry as I type and I’m forgetting the music as I hear it. I don’t mean to be exceptionally negative but the only thing redeeming about The Quarry is that it isn’t bad enough to stay in my head for any longer than it plays.
Big Bad Blues, Billy F. Gibbons
Here’s one I can really get behind. ZZ Top tends to get mocked for their superficial lyrics and cheap tricks (cheaper tricks than Cheap Trick’s tricks), but at their core, these two guitarists who met while impersonating The Zombies in the late ’60s became one of the forefathers of blues punk. Billy Gibbons delivers that classic heavy blues sound on his new album. Some songs are more swinging than others, “Second Line” has a rhythm like “Enchiladas” off Chuck Berry’s last album, while “Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’” has a distinctly more rock feel to it.
It’s hard to write about this album at length. It’s great, but unremarkable in the greater context of Gibbons’ career. I only peripherally listen to ZZ Top, so this album’s newness gave me a great excuse to explore their sound and really appreciate their talents outside of those goofy beards. And I’m glad I did. When you get into the content of their music (not their lyrics, which are beautifully vapid), you find a beautiful blues that lies somewhere between BB King and Jimmy Page.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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