I consider myself a typical member of the Generation X Diaspora: I left the liberal, coffee shop comforts of Ann Arbor, Michigan so that I could find the exact same ambience, only bigger and with fewer people that I’d slept with. Despite all of the xenophobic grousing of its residents, Austin, Texas is still an Edenic urban center in small town drag. More than anything, Austinites have real choices about the local music they see and aren’t just stuck with some frat boy cover band that has figured out that picking up a guitar is one way to defer the development of personality and still get laid. Li’l Cap’n Travis, local shit kicking rockers, highlight one of the best reasons I’m glad that chance and circumstance brought me to this woozy Texas oasis.
Lonesome and Losin’, the band’s second lurch out of the gate, is just the sort of soundtrack you’d want to have right before you accuse someone of taking your beer, chair, or future one-night stand. This album was clearly crafted from equal parts whiskey weeping and fisticuffs.
Unlike many other graduates of the Country Cool School, Li’l Cap’n Travis have not forgotten that country and western music has a long tradition of comic tragedy. Whereas Whiskeytown and Son Volt tended to distill country and western into just another form of pop balladry, L’il Cap’n Travis manage to update the stale one-liners of divorce, jail time and death into the more contemporary drudgery of hangovers at work, crooning for a “Cowgirl on Crutches” or, my personal favorite, the desire to “go out and get drunk and have a fight with some punk with a wallet chain”. A lot of music that makes me laugh can be like my father telling jokes, retrofitted to every situation, and toxic with repetition. But L’il Cap’n Travis is the sort of band that makes you want to memorize their lyrics like pub anthems, the kind of “true dat” cowboy koans that make you want to lift your stein and then hit the floor.
Their bar brawl bravado smirks through some of album’s funniest songs, including “Pink Elephants”, which begins with vocals that sound like they’re delivered from within the porcelain maw, and contains the classic gem: “I’m tired of being a toilet bowl slut”. The song itself jerks along like an affable drunk taking a missing swing at life. The guitars combine slow strumming and staccato bursts into a chorus that sounds like feedback falling down. “I Don’t Want to Go Out Tonite” is a sensitive bruiser’s litany of all the side-splitting reasons that make staying home the best option, including “don’t need to spend money picking up some little honey to be mean to me”. The irony being, of course, that the track’s up-tempo gait makes it a great song for getting ready to do exactly what it rails against.
Above and beyond their Skoal-dipped skill with a quick quip, Li’l Cap’n Travis are no strangers to songs with a fair share of yearning. The title track, “Lonesome and Losin’”, sounds like a lovesick steel-pedaled rewriting of the Wilco and Billy Bragg collaboration “California Stars”. In fact, Wilco is the one obvious influence throughout, but it’s a touch-and-go reference, not a railroad spike through the shoe. “Chances Are” is a love lost elegy with saloon-banging piano that includes a wonderfully drawled out chorus. On “Restless and Rowdy”, the band pulls off some sweet half-assed harmonizing, sounding like a Neil Young track written for a condemned dive, including slurred lyrics like “rowdy and ruthless and usually useless”. Perhaps the album’s most beautiful track is “Alone in the Drugstore” with its bumble-hummed vocals, feedback hammock sway, and plangent chords. It’s the kind of track built for summer night air.
Only “Peelin’ Out in Zeus Yard”, an unfortunately named and badly thought out instrumental, rakes the ear unpleasantly. It brings to mind some kind of 3 a.m. junky haze in an all-night Mexican restaurant with tinny mariachi skiffle piping in the background. It’s a Tylenol backdrop at best.
On the back cover, the song credits are boldly demarcated amongst the members. One can only hope that the band is not on the verge of being torn apart by an exchange student, too much Jim Beam, or the VH-1 kiss of death, “not communicating”. Hopefully, these front porch troubadours have a few albums yet to go. There aren’t enough honest drunks with talent in the world—at least, none that sound fun to hang out with.