by Tom Hallett
I don’t know why Gram Parsons has been comin’ up in conversations and just hangin’ out like the Ghost of Great Tunes Past in the back of my mind lately, but he has been. Maybe it’s cuz it’s been so bitter cold lately I’d rather be Sam McGee stoked up like the fires of Hell itself in that frozen Northern oven, or Gram burnin’ hard an’ bright in his cozy lil’ stolen coffin than a chunk of drunken ice with a slushy beer an’ headphones on. An’ I’m nearly twice the age Gram was when he bit the proverbial dust. Hard to believe the godfather of the Cosmic Cowboy genre was only 26 when he succumbed to a drug overdose, eh?
OF THE WEEK: "Gram Parsons thought he had Keith Richards' metabolism.
He didn't. Gram really thought he was macho; that he could drink and do drugs
and get laid and carry on indefinitely ? that he was not vulnerable. And he
paid for it. Not only the good die young, I'd say in a lot of instances the
dumb die young."- Phil Kaufman, road nanny to the stars.
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Sin City”- The Flying Burrito Brothers
I won’t go into the whole Gram story here, or just how huge his contributions
were to not only the perpetuation of classic country grooves but modern alt.country,
too- just Google his name, there are plenty of decent books and films that discuss
those finer points- I guess I just wanted to say thanks to the squirrely ol’
boy for helping to lay the groundwork for so many bands and artists that make
up my modern-day faves.
So yeah, maybe I do go on a bit about “alt.country,” “Americana”
and “roots rock,” but like Gram, I hear the howl of Real America
in the banjo plucks, pedal steel weeps an’ high lonesome guitars of Cosmic
Cowboy music. So here’s another one on my short list of new shit that’s
got that ol’ Parsons spirit rollin’ through it like a thick haze
of dope smoke an’ the paranoid sweat of a guy who knows he’s about
to punch his last ticket. A cat who knows deep in his guts that what he’s
done so far is all he’ll be leavin’ behind ...
hype for this record was so upbeat and comparative (Better than the Jayhawks?
Damn, that’s a regular double-edged sword ain’t it? I mean, yeah
it made me wanna hear the record, but it also put it up alongside one of my
favorite bands of all time and made it really hard to wrap my head around the
album an’ its’ true message) that I honestly had to listen to it
four or five consecutive times to really dig into the band and not the hype.
That being said, Frog Holler is a damn
talented outfit- they slay most of the obvious roots rock bogging down the alt.country
charts (whatever the hell those are, anyway), display an amazing understanding
of hook vs. substance, and absolutely play the shit outta a passel of instruments.
Is their record comparable to The Jayhawks’ Smile, or even Sound Of Lies?
Hell, no. It’s a completely different beast, and methinks if the band
themselves had had a hand in writing the press release for Haywire, they’d
not have used those ubiquitous Jayhawks comparisons quite so liberally- if at
Sure, some of this album is the very definition of “alt.country,”
but then again there’s some straight-up pop, some gnashing rock n’
roll, some hill country pickin’ and some good old-fashioned “country
and western” tucked into these here saddlebags, as well. Thing is, it
took a whole posse of rough riders to rope this bronc an’ hold him down
long enough to put their brand on him. But that’s nothin’ new to
the Jayhawks, either- thing is, about the only comparisons I can really make
between the two outfits is that they both were/are made up of members who actually
love the same Cosmic Cowboy shit I do (ever seen Gary Louris just out on the
town? I think they may actually have known Nudie, too ...) and that they obviously
care more about sharing their music than “hitting the big time.”
So who makes up this rather large collective of like-minded musical souls?
First mention has to go to singer/songwriter/guitarist Darren Schlappich, who
wrote every single song on this album, and who, despite that PR kit comparison
to the ‘Hawks, sounds vocally more like what might happen if you put Slim
Dunlap, John Hiatt and Slobberbone front-man Brent Best’s voices in a
cosmic blender fulla whiskey, rusty nails an’ hot sauce. Schlappich pens
to-the-bone, from-the-gut lyrics about topics ranging from everyday life to
barroom misery to handed-down family tales with all the same conviction and
authenticity as predecessors Louris and Parsons do and did.
Shlappich on this batch of barn-burners, honky-tonk ha’ants an’
bibulous breakdowns are fellow Reading, Penn., folks Todd Bartolo (lap steel,
electric guitar, mandolin and vocals), Daniel Bower (drums, percussion and vocals),
John Kilgore (electric and acoustic guitars, organ, electric piano and vocals),
Mike Lardanski (banjo, harmony vocals, accordian, percussion), Josh Seeurman
(bass), Amy Morrissey and Brian McTear on backing vocals, and Scott White on
violin. Christ, I don’t think the Jayhawks have had quite that many members
in all the years and configurations they’ve been around and through. But
hell, it sounds great, so who cares?
So what about the songs? Not even remotely Jayhawks rip-offs (talk to Tom Petty
guitarist Mike Campbell about that one!), and they all stand on their own as
fine pieces of musical art. Lead track “Hades” took me a few spins
to get into, but made perfect sense when I cranked ‘er up to eleven and
really understood the power of the tune. Kickin’ off with chiming guitars,
throbbing bass, and lush production, the tune fairly reeks of betrayal and gut-wrenching
pain: “... how come there’s heaven for us/ Not ‘til we die/
Meanwhile, there’s Hades for us/ While we’re alive ...” I
must’ve played this song sixty times in one afternoon and still ain’t
tired of it. An absolute charmer of a tune, and one that must be played at full,
shameless volume to fully appreciate.
“Pepper And Salt” is a melancholy, banjo-laden lope down memory
lane with a sarcastic, wink-an-a-nod twist (“I’ve had this dream
that when we die/ All the doors that been closed before/ Would open wide, able
to see both sides/ Were peppered with insults/ It was taken with no salt ...”)
“74" rolls out on tentative guitar pickin’, Schlappich matter-of-factly
relating a tale of his lost youth: “Vacation at the lake back in ’74
...” he recalls. “My father killed a snake with a rented oar because
it threatened my mom asleep on the shore ...” As the tune lazily rides
along, he goes deeper into the tale and the ramifications of those early days:
“Today I went to the bank to cash a couple of checks/ The teller was suspicious
and it has me upset/ She wanted second ID and I will never forget it ... My
baby says, ‘You’re gonna have a heart attack/ You’re 37 years
old/ You gotta learn to relax/ Just like when you were young ...’”
stand-outs include “On Winter Blues,” a pedal-steel-heavy, mid-tempo
ballad with killer lines like, “Where does this come from baby?/ It’s
like a lid on a stew/ Where does this come from/ Red hot on winter blues ...”
The title cut, at first spare and filled with unnamed dread, soon morphs into
another finely detailed piece of music, with lyrics that both hit home and remain
an enigma. “Sight Unseen” travels down the same dusty, Byrds-ian
trail as Son Volt, with a driving back-beat and tasty country tinges framing
a bed of solid rock ‘n’ roll (is that cowbells I hear? More cowbells,
cowboys!!), while the mandolin-laced “Ben Franklin’s Blues”
steers us down Steve Earle Lane for a bit of healthy historical wallowin’:
“... looking through bewildered glasses makes me want to try to see things
new ... and living through the great deception makes me keep one eye wide awake/
When everyone’s tired...”
All in all, a powerful collection of cool, modern-country nuggets, ubiquitous
pop hook-ery, and smart, satisfying lyrical content- Frog Holler ain’t
no Jayhawks, but then, the Jayhawks weren’t no Flying Burrito Brothers,
either. They’re all great on their own merits, and the fact that the ol’
Cosmic Cowboy vibe jes’ keeps a’ rollin’ on down them long
twin rails just perpetuates that notion. This album, their fifth, doesn’t
strike me as being up to their full potential- I suspect this outfit will eventually
top this collection- but it beats the livin’ shit outta most of the predictable,
dried-up country hoo-haw comin’ outta the “alt” market these
days. Kudos to Frog Holler, and may the wind take your troubles away, boys ...
Check out the band at FrogHoller.com.
That’s it for this time ‘round, gang. Tune in again next time out
for more of the same. Until we meet again, make yer own damn news ...
If you have local music news/gigs/events/CDs you’d like to see mentioned
in this space, or you’d just like to put some ting-tang in my walla-walla-bing-bang,
send replies to: Tmygunn777@peoplepc.com