When the Texas quartet known as Slobberbone started doing gigs in the middle of the ‘90s, the band were happy to play for brews and friends. Now, with a number of albums under their belts, this rollicking and grand rock and roll band have outdone themselves yet again. A series of finely written and perfectly executed roots rock songs on this fourth disc sounds like a band ready to take on all challengers for the top of the Americana hill. And although the title of this album might suggest they’ve taken a bit off around the edges, nothing about the record suggest a Slippage of any kind. Trust me.
Kicking off with a joyous rock track that has drummer Tony Harper keeping it all intact, “Springfield, IL.” is one of the better, if not best, opening tracks you’ll hear this year. Brimming with crunchy riffs, a bit of punk and all the alt.country a Midwestern band can deliver, the song just soars from start to finish. As well, a false finish only adds to the tune’s luster. Lead singer Brent Best is only surpassed by the intricate ‘50s guitar noodling during the bridge. “Stupid Works” is a slight breather from the previous song, a mid-tempo beer soaked rock ballad that has a lot in common with early ‘60s pop. Here the arrangement tends to dictate the song, not allowing much room to improvise. “Write Me Off” returns to form though, a straightforward punk pop track in the vein of the Replacements and early Soul Asylum at times. Brian Lane is the song’s unsung hero on the bass, propelling the track forward at a rapid pace.
Most of the alt.country or roots rock groups tend to either excel at ballads and are mediocre on the rock tracks or vice versa. The first true down-tempo ballad is “Sister Beams”, a slow building piano-tinged track that has some sweet harmonies. The track itself resembles the Wallflowers in certain aspects, particularly “Sixth Avenue Heartache”. “And she asked me if I’ll stay with her, but I got things to do / Now he’s dead, he must have lost his head when I struck him with what to do” Best utters in a raspy yet appealing voice. Another important contribution to the album is producer Don Smith. Smith, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and the Rolling Stones to name a few, works his magic on tunes like “Butchers”. Here Smith seems to excavate what is at the band’s core, a rock sound with punk undertones.
The second half of the album begins with “Sweetness, That’s Your Cue”, resembling Marah circa Kids in Philly. Whether it’s the harmonica giving it a certain flavor or the simmering rhythm guitar, the listener knows it’s heading in the right direction, but not exactly when. “I’m pissing away everything I used to hold,” Best sings over a stellar background. It’s another example of how the band tends to tightly pack each song with as much oomph as possible, making it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps the only miscue is its choice of covers. Resorting back to “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees, the number misses the mark from the get-go, despite a Rolling Stones circa Exile On Main Street approach to it.
Comparisons to Wilco and other alt.country bands are a dime a dozen, but for a song like “Find the Out”, it still holds water. A front porch stomp with harmonica, electric guitars and pianos resembling Neil Young in his prime, it’s perhaps the album’s darkhorse. Not able to be pigeonholed into any one style, this seems an appropriate compliment to Slobberbone. And at more than six minutes, the song is an ambling track that has a large amount of flow too. “Downtown Again” is a hit and miss affair, a deliberate buildup to the chorus that seems a bit overproduced and polished to its detriment. The harmonies take away from what momentum it has, coming off more like British rock in the style of Oasis. By the end, it’s on its last sonic legs.
Ending with a brief acoustic throwaway in “Back”, the band has reached another fork in the road. But given how each album has improved on the predecessor, it’s a high or low road that will have plenty of tailgaters. A keeper if found.
// Notes from the Road
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