The strongest feature of Pull the Brake is its everyman appeal—you can sing along from your Prius, your pickup, your Porsche, or the paddy wagon. And that’s what country music is about, yes? In both name and presentation, the five members of the Wrinkle Neck Mules aren’t hiding from their country roots. With ringing pedal steel, banjos, mandolin, electric guitar, and a penchant for anthemic rock with harmonies, this is country music.
The band hails from Richmond, Virginia, where I guarantee there’s a healthy fan-base of college students. At live shows, I imagine the English majors who are Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy completists sip their Amstels while scoffing at the Bud Light frat-boy set, who sing along too loudly. That broad appeal is the genius of this genre, and this band. While there’s no shortage of bands doing what the Wrinkle Neck Mules are doing, there is enough lyrical and compositional strength on Pull the Brake to distinguish it from its twangy peers.
There are parallel—and yet seemingly opposing—forces at work here: lyrics that paint dark portraits of loss and departure and instrumentation that is largely bright-colored and singable. Opener “Liza” might first be mistaken for a love song, reminiscent of R.E.M.‘s “The One I Love”. But, upon closer listen, those lines of “Oh Liza, Oh Liza, you’re mine…” emerge not from love, but possession—it seems our narrator has killed Liza’s father and brother, has kidnapped her, and is now en route to a mineshaft. In the chorus of “Dust of Saturday”, lyrics “You go your way / And I’ll go mine” are sung in a harmonious manner despite stating the opposite. Though “Okachobee” doesn’t exactly roll off of the tongue, this bluegrass-tinged song is surprisingly catchy. Its subject? A man reminiscing about his home—a home which he has chosen over a woman. It is this sort of mystery and texture that make these songs worth revisiting.
Towards the middle of the album, eerie “Lowlight” features both harmonies and a lead verse from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Textured steel-guitar undercurrents create a foreboding atmosphere in this album highlight. Other mid-to-slow-tempo songs don’t play out nearly so well. As these fifteen songs stretch over the one-hour mark, similarities and a certain sameness begin to emerge. Sometimes it’s the lack of impassioned presentation (“True to the Vine”), and elsewhere it’s the clichéd structure of a country-rock anthem (“Mecklenburg County”). A shorter album would have been a stronger album, as this release is front-loaded with the best songs.
It’s easy to appraise the Wrinkle Neck Mules as a less mature Drive-By Truckers, owing to the multi-guitar, multi-singer/songwriter, multi-harmony approach that both bands share. And, of course, there are the dusty shadowings of Uncle Tupelo in this Mule’s DNA. But these observations aren’t detractions—this is a band that is proud of its roots, and welcomes the proud traditions and conventions of country music. Pull the Brake is country music for country music fans.