Two Dollar Pistols’ frontman John Howie, Jr., has got it rough with the ladies. Lying women cheat on him, cheating women lie to him—basically the dude’s got a mudhole stomped into his heart by the so-called fairer sex. Such misery is a double-edged sword—if you’re down in the dumps, the Pistols’ latest, Hands Up!, provides great company and is a toe-tapping way to wallow in misery… but if you’re in a good mood (and your girlfriend loves you and is faithful), Howie’s tales of love gone very wrong and his inability to catch a break in life will soon wear on your soul. Say howdy to the most mood-contingent alt-country record of the year.
The band—Howie, guitarist/keyboardist Scott McCall, drummer Matt Brown, and bassist Mark O’Brien, with some help from Clyde Mattocks on steel pedal guitar—sounds ace on Hands Up!, as they flow seamlessly from honky-tonk numbers (“Runnin’ with the Fools”, “Lonely All Alone”) that sound like they’ve been spinning in a Bakersfield dive bar juke box for the past 40 years (truly, Buck Owens would be proud) to shinier, more pop-inflected tunes like opener “Too Bad That You’re Gone” and the upbeat title track (if the buxom blonde on the album cover said “Hands Up!” to you, you’d probably be upbeat too). The latter tracks call to mind Wilco’s charming 1995 debut, A.M., and that should be no surprise as the Pistols recruited that album’s producer, Brian Paulson, to twiddle the knobs on Hands Up!. Hey, if Wilco’s not gonna sound like the Wilco of old, at least the Pistols will.
Some sonic expansion aside, the Pistols, in the words of Howie, will always be “a country band that likes rock ‘n’ roll ... not a rock ‘n’ roll band that likes country music.” It’s splitting hairs, perhaps, but it’s important to note that the Pistols stay true to their country music roots. They are deeply indebted to the aforementioned Owens, as well as countrypolitan acts like Charlie Rich and songwriter Jimmy Webb. If you’re looking to bridge the culture gap with your grandparents, throw Hands Up! on the CD player next time you visit them.
OK, so the music sounds “authentic”, and Howie and Co. wear their influences on their sleeves; the only matter to be resolved is: How willing are you to let Two Dollar Pistols be your guide through the depths of the soul? The first four tracks will certainly alter your beer-to-tear ratio, each tune slower and more gut-wrenching than the last. Of note is the aching waltz “There Goes My Baby”, which is not a Cat Stevens cover, but is more twist-the-knife-why-doncha-lady than Stevens’s take on the subject. Four tearjerkers on an album should be enough for even the most lovelorn, but after a two-song respite (“Hands Up” and “Lonely All Alone”), the album closes with five more weepies! They’re all straight-outta-Bakersfield gems, but it’s almost too much to bear in one sitting, unless you’ve just been dumped again… and then again. And then once more for good measure.
Ultimately, Hands Up! finds the Pistols, um, firing on all cylinders, but it’s not a casual listen. I’m not gonna tell Yep Roc how to promote their artists, but a wise marketing department would release a Collectors’ Edition of Hands Up!, complete with a whiskey glass and the disc under a glass labeled “Break Glass in Case of Broken Heart”.