It’s hard to beat the opening line’s of Red Star Belgrade’s new release: “You’re so mighty and so high / I couldn’t see you with a telescope” (I know, that’s what the press release says…but it’s true!). These desperate lines set the tone for the rest of this wonderful new effort. The husband and wife team Bill and Graham Harris Curry who comprise the entirety of RSB draw on slide guitar, ebow, melodica, mandolin, organ, and the requisite guitar and drums to produce something not quite country, not quite alternative, not quite folk. You probably won’t hear RSB on any Americana radio stations, much less on any other automaton-programmed frequency, but you should. A bit quieter then RSB’s earlier releases, Telescope ponders Nixon, revolution, isolation, dusty guitars, Kosovo, alcohol (too much of it), and Uncle Tupelo, all through a powerful lense that burns up its objects with the focused rays of the RSB sun. With their sounds and influences coming from all over the map, RSB sometimes comes across as My Dad Is Dead gone to Nashville via Chapel Hill, but more often I imagine Neil Young born in the 1970s in New Jersey.
The mix and breadth of Telescope demand that I play it over and over again, trying to sort out all the ideas that RSB lavishes on the record. Initially the sweep of the music demands careful listening, as each song changes not only instrumentation but cuts across genres as well. This is not to say that RSB merely mimics styles, but rather that each song presents its own style, carrying references to all kinds of genres. But more than relying on mimicry, pastiche, or emulation, RSB accomplishes a style that I definitively would call Red Star Belgrade—there could be no other. Along these lines of idiosyncrasy, the only cover is conclusively unrecognizable—as a cover. Angus Young’s 1979 anthem to personal anarchy and self-destruction, “Highway to Hell,” reminds me of Merle Haggard with a throat infection fronting Son Volt on a Tuesday night in a club in Joliet. After a dozen listenings, I can hear the words, but I still refuse to believe that this is the same song that impassioned my drug use in the eighth grade. Not the same one. Couldn’t be.
If you love alternative or insurgent country, but may tire on some days of its hyperbole, irony, and occasional burlesque and want some Wilco with a bite, pick up Telescope and play it loud. Don’t play it low and drink too much late at night though. It’ll make you sad.