Alt-country, as a genre, is awfully hard to mess up. Conversely, it’s also really hard to do extremely well – you have to practically take a bath in both country and punk idioms and really live the lifestyle to pull it off. That means that many bands of the ilk are merely competent. They’re not bad, but they’re far from terrific, too. The group Drunken Prayer, led by Morgan Geer, falls into that category on their sophomore release and first for the brand new, Portland-based Fluff & Gravy country-rock-folk label. Into the Missionfield, so named for signs outside churches that read, “You are now entering the mission field”, is certainly ambitious. There are 12 backing members that play on the album, and it uses no less than three drummers. (Some songs actually feature two drummers, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from hearing the goods.) There’s also some really great stuff here, too, such as a rocking version of the oft-covered traditional folk anthem “Ain’t No Grave” (probably most famously done by Johnny Cash), which sort of sounds almost Lenny Kravitz-ish in its rendering. Also, Geer remarkably sounds like Randy Newman, which is apt considering that Newman spent some time as a youth in New Orleans, and that city and related imagery (ie. Hurricane Katrina) crop up in the song lyrics of Drunken Prayer, as well as a touch of Dixieland jazz swagger on songs like “You Walk”.
However, to borrow from the name of the record label that Drunken Prayer is now on, there’s unfortunately a fair bit of “fluff” to be found on Into the Missionfield, particularly in the album’s mid-section, where a lot of the numbers have a tossed-off vibe to them and they just seem vaguely filler-ish, being only a couple of minutes long. Where the album actually gets particularly strong is on the very last three tracks of the 11 song set. “Balloons” is a jumpy, almost mid-period Wilco-esque number that wheezes by with excitement, a real rave-up if there was one. “Beachcomber” (not a cover of the Real Estate song) is what the Beach Boys might have sounded like in the mid-‘60s had they taken on a more folksy, acoustic side with gorgeous multi-tracked vocals. Album ender “Never Tends to Forget” has a very White Album Beatles vibe to it, something that McCartney and Lennon would be proud of (well, if Lennon were still alive), and is a particularly strong way to close the set. All in all, Into the Missionfield is far, far from being a horrible album, but it doesn’t light a torch for a new brand of Americana either. It is what you would call “competent”. It’s not the finest alt-country album to come along in some time, but it is an agreeable way to spend roughly 41 minutes if you’re looking to add something to your collection. If the ending of Into the Missionfield is any indication, though, Drunken Prayer’s best material might still be in front of them, which is more than enough reason to keep a beady eye on where Geer and his cohorts will be heading next.