The last decade or so has seen a rise in country-flavored music that carries with it a sense of the American heartland, yet doesn’t fit within the radio definition of “country”. “Alt-country”, “insurgent country”, “roots”, “Americana”, whatever you want to call it. It’ been a wonderful occurrence in a certain way, given the songwriting talent that has come to the forefront. But the whole indie-label country scene can also be a rather conservative one, filled with ultra-revisionist bands whose concept of country music has everything to do with the surface level things like what clothes you wear and which instruments you play. But for every theme-park-style re-enactment of the past (BR5-49, Beachwood Sparks, etc.), there’s a group with their own sound, one which takes the building blocks of country music and builds on them with their own perspective, groups like Marah, My Morning Jacket and The Beauty Shop.
On their debut full-length Yr Money Or Yr Life, The Beauty Shop mix the country-rock sound of Son Volt, etc. with the darker and more eccentric strains of folk/pop/rock represented by Nick Cave and Tom Waits. Throw in a morose sense of drama, a dose of James Dean-style rebellion and a solid sense of humor, and you have a Midwestern trio with their own style, making music that can stand out from the herd.
Lead singer/songwriter John Hoeffleur’s lyrical perspective is generally that of a hard-luck bad boy. He’s seen it all, and now he’s a hard-edged rebel who doesn’t give a damn. At times he gets almost heavy-handed about it, like he’s trying hard to shock somebody. Take “I Got Issues”’ opening lines: “I made a mountain out of coke that I sniffed right up my nose / I wrote ‘fuck’ on all my clothes, that’s the life I chose.” The second part of that quotation demonstrates the fine line Hoeffleur walks between seriousness and humor. As he sings in one track, “You never know when I’m fooling.”
Hoeffleur’s smart enough to not just repeat the usual tough-guy clichés. Bad boys get boring unless you can see the heart beneath the tough demeanor, so Hoeffleur makes a point of revealing the emotions beneath his rebellious veneer. This comes across most strongly in “Shell Game”, an aching ballad, or in the mysterious album opener “Death March”, where he’s wandering the desert, licking the last drops of water from corpses’ canteens, but all he can think about is how much he misses the woman he loves.
Musically, The Beauty Shop hit the right notes (so to speak), by continually switching gears without losing their cohesive sound of traditional country with a rock edge. They’ll go from a Leonard Cohen-ish dirge to a blues-soaked number, and soak it all in rustic guitars and Hoeffleur’s heartfelt growl. And every once in a while they throw in a complete surprise, like the unbelievably pop hook of “Dutch Courage”, or like the way “Issues” mutates from power-chord crunch into a Jonathan Richman-like acoustic shuffle. All in all, Yr Money Or Yr Life is a solid debut filled with classic American tales of heartbreak, hard times, drinking and rebellion from a trio who know what they’re doing musically, who will lead you all over the country without losing your interest.