[16 February 2011]
The title of Hayes Carll’s latest hard rockin’ folk album is a modern military acronym. KMAG YOYO (pronounced “kay-mag, yo-yo”) stands for Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re on Your Own. That smart-aleck attitude captures the spirit of the new release. The title song itself is a weird mishmash of a composition. The Lone Star troubadour says he wrote the music before the lyrics to the songs on the record, and musically, “KMAG YOYO” shamelessly steals the melody directly from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but played at a slightly more manic pace. The words themselves tell a shaggy dog story about a young American soldier in Afghanistan who tricks the Pentagon out of a bundle of cash. The point of it all may be unclear, but Carll takes the listener on a heck of a funny ride.
Carll has a Texas sense of humor, by which I mean he often writes BIG songs to emphasize the outrageousness of human situations. When he sings of love, he means lust, between a man and a woman so mismatched that only sex and booze can make the relationship work. So when the liberal Democrat narrator Carll duets with the conservative Republican (sung by Carrie Ann Hearst) on “Another Like You”, the insults fly fast and furious before the couple end up screwing. They make the real life James Carville and Mary Matalin seem like pikers in comparison.
When the mood is toned down on more autobiographical tracks like “The Letter” and “Chances Are”, Carll treads into more sentimental and sappy territory, which is less effective. He may be sincere and explicit when he sings about missing home or a loved one, but he’s also less compelling. The same is true when he sings about the difficult truths of life on the road, on “Hard Out Here”, even though he does this with a wry grin. Or on the spiritual “Hide Me”, complete with gospel choir, that honestly addresses the meaning of life. But he’s better when he makes up romantic stories, such as on “Bye Bye Baby” and “Grand Parade”, or making up holiday tales, like on “Grateful for Christmas”. He lets his imagination paint the details. That’s the role of an artist. And while he may be singing lies, that’s okay, because one can find the truth in the fiction.
When Carll takes on a persona, such as that of a hobo on “Bottle in My Hand,” he has the freedom of the main character to stretch the truth. He’s joined on that track by Todd Snider and Corb Lund, and they engage in an infectious bit of a bull session. Life without a home may not be the paradise they sing about, but one can feel the intoxication of the road and the alcohol in their voices. When Carll engages in a bit of “Stomp and Holler”, one wants to join in the festivities simply because he makes the simple pleasures of jumping up and down and shouting at the top of one’s lungs seem like the best thing on Earth to do. Songs like this make one want to tell Carll what Woody Allen says that critics tell him: stick to making short and funny works. You do that the best.