[27 January 2005]
Grant Langston makes alt-country music, which means he has sense enough to know that mainstream country is downright silly. Embarrassingly silly. Hell, I’m from Oklahoma, and even I couldn’t tell you just why any self-respecting cowboy would wear a damn neon pink shirt or listen to any singer whose videos are choreographed. Somehow I think Hank Sr. wasn’t much for designer blouses or cutesy dance moves. As far as I’m concerned, country should be like good rock: rebellious, a bit raucous, and sincere (even if odd). Grant Langston thinks the same. Case in point: on his newest album, Road Side Service, Langston covers Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls”—honky tonk style. Imagine that—a good ol’ boy covering a song by a British rock band with glam tendencies whose lead singer was…um…odd. How’s that for an alternative to the notoriously right-wing country establishment?
Alt-country has always been a hard term to define. Even the “official” alt-country publication, No Depression, places the following statement after the genre’s title on their cover: “Whatever That Means”. In Grant Langston’s case, however, the tag is appropriate. His approach is to mix oddball—and often irreverent—witticisms with roots rock. Damn… now I have to define another term. Roots rock: rock inspired by its roots. There. You know, rock that sounds a bit country, a bit blues, a bit folk. Anyway, Langston’s humor is off-kilter, and his approach is completely earnest, which certainly separates him from self-righteous and self-conscious Nashville.
Take, for instance, “Junkie”, the first track. Just the fact that this song shares its title with a William Burroughs novel tells you it isn’t your average country tune. Indeed, this song is about a man who misses his junkie ex-girlfriend so much that he buys a gun and blows away his stereo. Now that’s what country needs—more drug, gun, and impulsive behavior references. After all, isn’t this supposed to be the music of derelict individualism? Rather than making a serious or depressing song about the tragedy of drug use, however, Langston’s approach is tongue-in-cheek: “I bought a .45 in case / Cause you never know / I hate the damn thing / Blew a hole in my stereo / Did you catch my drift / Life’s a catastrophe…”. By the end of the song, you can’t help but feel sympathy for the disheveled but endearing narrator.
Indeed, Langston has a knack for creating characters that are loveable messes. In “Him or Me”, the main character decides to finally confront his philandering woman. Once again, this song could easily fall into sticky pathos, but Langston’s clever wordplay lifts the song above standard country fare: “I didn’t count on the fits and the shits / The passive-aggressive hits / The cheating, the lying, the lowdown denying”. How many songs do you know of that rhyme fits, shits, and hits using internal rhyme? Stumped you, huh? What’s more, the music is classic roadside bar country, featuring mandolin, lap steel, and a galloping drum beat. This juxtaposition of traditional music with twisted humor steers the song away from the clichéd trappings of country music (my woman is cheating, I’m depressed, blah, blah, blah…).
Langston’s humor, however, is not always in fine form. Sometimes he just sounds like your annoying friend whose one goal in life is to always be witty, no matter the circumstance. As you well know, such people are often irritating, particularly when they think they are being witty and nobody else agrees. Such is the case with “James Brown”, a song about man’s mortality and the Godfather of Soul. The storyline goes something like this: the narrator’s sister-in-law dies, he attends her funeral, ponders the inescapable fate of death, and concludes that death is the result of not getting enough James Brown. Man, when wit goes astray, it goes way astray. The same can be said for “This Town Stinks”, which features the not-so-keen lines “The cops are all retarded / Working out their teenage angst”. Gee, what a sharp observation.
Still, the majority of this album is a refreshing listen, particularly because Langston’s backing band (sarcastically called the Supermodels) is fluent in both the country and rock musical vocabularies. Throughout the album, they intertwine both genres, but always play to serve the song rather than showcasing any member’s abilities. This approach, of course, emphasizes Langston’s storytelling, which is the main draw here. At his finer moments, Langston’s lyrics are reminiscent of the adept wordplay of fellow country crooner Lyle Lovett. Unfortunately, such originality isn’t appealing to country radio programmers, so Langston may have to scratch out a living among the alt-country folks, whatever that means.