It would appear that it actually is, in fact, good to be Backyard Tire Fire in this day and age. Initially built around co-founding singer/guitarist Ed Anderson and drummer Tim Kramp, band tenures in Charlotte, North Carolina and Athens, Georgia featured local sidemen who didn’t make the respective moves, but the band has managed to keep their wanderlust and lineup changes at bay of late. Anderson’s brother has held the bass slot for the last three records—time spent in the band’s current hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. It has been a fertile home base for Backyard Tire Fire. When they are home, at least. Recent years have found the band touring their Tom Petty inflected roots rock hard with bands like Cracker, Clutch, and Los Lobos. Shows with the latter proved to be the most fortuitous pairing for the trio, placing the band in front of appreciative good-sized crowds and also scoring them Lobos sax/keysman Steve Berlin in the producer chair for Good to Be.
The experience seems to have borne fruit. Berlin has a reputation as a hands-on producer, actively participating in the writing process and often playing on the majority of a project’s tracks. As the franchise songwriter, Ed Anderson was ridden hard and put away wet throughout, but the effort was not without purpose or reward. Stakes were high, as Good to Be is the band’s first release on their own Kelsey Street Records. Berlin and the band stripped each song to the bone, changing arrangements and lyrics at every turn. Only when a song had an indisputably solid foundation did the band move forward to add their parts. Berlin embellishes every track on Good to Be with musical fairy dust, whether it be strings, keys or sax, each addition unobtrusively significant but no less integral. It’s an alchemic relationship that Berlin and Backyard Tire Fire would do well to maintain.
Backyard Tire Fire romp out of the gate with “Roadsong #39”, sporting a cocky ZZ Top meets Bottle Rockets swagger that serves as a nice, albeit somewhat generic, intro to the proceedings, but it’s the following “Ready Or Not” where the band really starts to flex the songcraft that makes Good to Be their best release of their career. Beatle-y progressions with big “Day in the Life” flourishes abound, some of which resolve to extended outros that are more than a little reminiscent of Dire Straits. And there are plenty of homages to many classic bands. “Brady” sports a bit of a CSNY turn, but Tom Petty is definitely the biggest overt influence here. The vocal bites get a little blatant on “Estelle”, a song that is by no means bad, but one that also features a vocal turn ending every line that is so flagrantly Petty, you might see someone having a quiet word with our heroes.
On the back half of things, “Food for Thought” sports wonderfully gauzy guitars and a lovely AM radio vibe to go with its big old hook. Good to Be gives you your money’s worth as it concerns keys and harmonies, but it’s when Backyard Tire Fire set to rocking that things really gets fun. “Hell and Back” opens with a bit of Richard Thompson-indebted acoustic pyrotechnica before charging forward with a swagger that evokes the best parts of North Carolina powerhouses Six String Drag and Patty Hurst Shifter. It’s got a chorus for days, and lest you think its a fluke, strap on in, as Good to Be really catches steam as it gets towards the end. Anyone who was into late ‘90s Philly rock like Flight of Mavis or Buzz Zeemer will eat this up with a spoon. “A Thousand Gigs Ago” may be my favorite track, simmering before busting out one hell of a chorus to hook you good. I defy you to not hoist a beverage and sing along. It’s so good of a song that you can forget the Marah-isms of “Piss and Moan” and just settle into the Chris Bell cushion of the closing “Once Upon a Time”. Equally good with a rocker or more pastoral fare, Backyard Tire are no Big Star, but Good to Be brings the band one step closer to such lofty heights.