Damn that Bobby Bare, Jr.
Damn him for being so lovable and talented—all curly red hair, infectious energy and effortless wit. To add to my envy, he had one day this past March that included 11 hours more productive than the sum of my year-to-date. Dammit.
More on those 11 hours later. More on Bare’s history now. Even those unfamiliar with Bare might be jealous of the fact he received a Grammy nomination at the age of five, for a collaboration (“Daddy, What If?”) with his famous classic country father. He has more recently sung: “I was born at the Ryman Auditorium / during the Martha White portion of the Grand Old Opry.” This may not be the exact truth, but it’s close enough to be believable: Bobby Bare Jr. has music in his DNA.
But Bare isn’t a genetic blueprint of his crooner father, nor a New Nashville schmuck: this he proved in 1998 with his debut rock ‘n’ roll band, appropriately named Bare Jr. The title of Bare Jr.‘s first release—Boo-tay—hints that Bare isn’t too serious, and the first line of the album is typical of the winking nature of his lyrics: “You dig me/ more than I dig myself/ and I’m in love with you/ ‘cause I got nothing better to do….” Written from the perspective of a self-depreciative slacker, Boo-tay is the kind of break-up album that helps you laugh at the love who has left you, and the only remaining sting is the one in your ears from absorbing the album’s country-rock masterpieces in all their loud glory. Brainwasher followed three years later, although it lacked the irreverent charm of the debut.
The Young Criminals Starvation League is the name of both Bare’s next band and their self-titled 2002 album. This release distinguished itself from the previous two by employing a folk-pop template, complete with horns and a jazzy sound that bring Bare’s brilliant lyrics to the forefront. Story songs and character studies such as “Flat-Chested Girl from Maynardville” and “The Monk at the Disco” matched the perception of a poet with the wit of a stand-up comic. Another strong album and EP followed, the band’s songs delivered with an unflagging genuineness and personality. Bare and the Young Criminals’ Starvation League covered “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” without a trace of irony, and often gracefully amused the listener with a melody and verse to ponder.
Context provided, let’s revisit my envy and that productive day in March. Bare’s newest release is comprised of 11 songs recorded with 11 friends in 11 hours. And though The Longest Meow is tagged as a release with the Young Criminals Starvation League, it’s more of a return to the amped-up sound of Bare Jr. “Now I got electric blood!” is an apt line from the disc’s opener, “The Heart Bionic,” a pulsating boogie with skronking baritone sax and headboppin’ rhythm. This incarnation of the ‘League includes members of Clem Snide, Lambchop, Trail of Dead, and My Morning Jacket. I wish my friends were this cool, and that we could make an album this good. In one day.
The Longest Meow is as quirky, irreverent, and unique as Bare’s past work. There are sonic echoes of his most recent efforts in the almost symphonic vibe of “Mayonnaise Brain” and in “Back to Blue”, which merges a southwestern Calexico feel with the classic country spice of a weepy steel guitar. But there’s also unprecedented volume and texture here, and an eccentric sense of sonic experimentation. “Sticky Chemical” is a campy organ rave-up, while “Uh Wuh Oh” is a spastic, electroplasmic rocker with chiming barrelhouse piano.
The most obvious influence on The Longest Meow is the presence of three members of My Morning Jacket. Were it Jim James instead of Bare wailing on “Snuggling World Championships”, the song could be an outtake from My Morning Jacket’s atmospheric Z. That band’s southern rock sensibility, evident pre-Z, emerges in the lumbering, frenzied climax of closer “Stop Crying.” The album’s peak is “Borrow Your Cape,” a five-minute-plus stretch-out which sees Bare breaking new ground—it is his longest recorded song and contains his first overtly political lyrics. Incisive verses like “Brace your face with a grin to win/ the media’s singing your tune/ and the wars have all run out of food/ as the schools are teaching something new” are punctuated by the maelstrom of My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel, while bandmate Patrick Hallahan propels with an insistent drumbeat. Along with the aforementioned “The Heart Bionic”, these songs showcase the perfect fusion of My Morning Jacket’s transcendent moments with the raucous energy of Bare Jr.
The flip side is that Bare’s nuanced storytelling does sometimes get buried under the volume of The Longest Meow. Yet, Bare can’t be blamed for trying something new. Throughout his career, Bare has always seemed to be perpetually winking at his listener. Sometimes, it’s a knowing wink. Elsewhere, it’s a flirting wink. It can be a shy or smiling wink. Given the self-imposed time constraints of The Longest Meow, this album is a “look what I can do in one day” wink. Damn him.