It is simply too sloppy (and ultimately inaccurate) to slap the alt.country label on this Champaign-Urbana-based duo. No doubt, the roots-inflected approach of Jacob Fleischli (vocals, guitars) and Rebecca Rury (drums) on the debut Sunday Night shares many of the critical elements of country-folk traditions, notably the use of pedal steel and Fleischli’s own Dylan-evoking Nashville Skyline-style vocal delivery. However, the duo expands on this basic groundwork to create an altogether unique sound.
For a start, the duo applies a fresh textural approach to the roots rock structure that may take its initial cue from Gram Parsons’ Cosmic Americana but with the inclusion of psychedelic electric guitar flourishes, ethereal keyboards, folky mandolin and ghostly fiddle, transports it to completely strange and wonderful frontiers. Also, Rury’s pulsating and pounding percussive work adds a new dimension to the standard hillbilly rhythms. Haunting and dynamic, the music on Sunday Night is deeper than first encountered and more innovative than accounted for.
The Kings have centered their roots music square in the eye of a psychedelic space rock hurricane, creating an unsettling hybrid that stretches well beyond any perceived limitations of straight country folk blues. This is achieved by Fleischli’s spectral guitar playing which explores exciting avenues never once resorting to the hoary clichés associated with the new Americana. Also critical is Rury’s inventive percussive backing, transforming predictable structures into windows of unbridled experimentation.
Commentators have suggested that the austere sound on Sunday Night is reminiscent of the lo-fi adventures of such studio-challenged avatars as Bob Pollard’s Guided by Voices and the Grifters. Whilst the recording on Sunday Night can be charitably described as “murky”, it is still hi-fi compared to those cited examples. In fact, the general muddied nature adds rather than detracts from the overall atmosphere.
Desperation and depression are emotions the Kings seek to elicit on these downer tunes. Tinges of regret and hopelessness reign dominant in the scheme of things of songs like “I Thought You Loved Me” and “It’s a Shame”. “I’ll Ride No More” and “If I Could” offer only forlorn resignation in the face of difficult circumstances and disappointment. Whilst angst for its own sake should obviously be discouraged, the Kings do not appear to be glorifying this state of mind. Rather, this expression provides a cathartic release that resolves itself in the robust closer “Today is the Day”—“But every time I hear that song I’ll know I’m moving on” life goes on despite the pain.
An endeavor worthy of consideration by all serious students of the ever-changing face of rock and pop music, the Tractor Kings prove that with a little inspiration and maverick arrangements, rock need not be obsessed with yesterdays but, with a foundation in the past, build confidently into tomorrow.