[7 June 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Country Mice are a band that transcends both space and time. The space aspect is physical as front man Jason Rueger grew up on a rural Kansas farm (passed down through three generations of his kin) but wound up making the transition from a country mouse to a city one at some point, longing for escape, as he moved half a continent away to Brooklyn. He met his fellow band members there in the sprawling metropolis of New York City—guitarist Ben Bullington, drummer Kurt Kuehn and bassist Mike Feldman—and found that they too had rural backgrounds: one was also from Kansas, another from Wisconsin and the last from upstate New York. Thus, Country Mice is a band that surpasses geographical boundaries and the rural-urban dichotomy. However, their sound also reaches back, not just to the windswept plains of the Midwest, but to the late ‘60s sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse circa Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. There is, indeed, a ragged glory to the sounds of Country Mice’s debut album Twister – debut, if you don’t count seven-inch singles and a cassette-only recording on tiny Brooklyn labels – and the flannel factor flies ferociously.
There’s a sense of yearning to be found on Twister as the track “Close Behind”, which comes mid-way through the record, unspools the following narrative: “We’ll leave together / We’ll leave this town / Pack up your sawdust / I’ll be close behind”. The song is quiet and meditative, until the guitar solo kicks in with the unsettled air of a tornado barreling down the desolate landscape of wheat and corn fields. Likewise, on “Bullet of a Gun”, the following lines are painted: “You follow me, and I’ll follow you / You walk away, and I’ll walk, too”. That’s an overriding theme of Twister: left and leaving. The pain of traveling away from familiar country backdrops informs and galvanizes Country Mice. That aching and yearning is most unsettled at the very top of Twister, as it opens with a crushing two-shot in the form of “Ghost” and “Festival”. If Dinosaur Jr. had more roots-rock leanings, that would be the sound that is conjured up by the fiery beginning of the disc. However, as things progress, the music gets a little more hushed, a little more twangy, a little more jangly, a little more relaxed. It’s as though Country Mice, throughout the course of the album, get a little more comfortable in their ripped blue jeans and sense of place in the scheme of the alternative country universe. In fact, if Twister has peaks and valleys, the mountains are right up front with “Ghost” and “Festival” and then gradually level off from there. In a sense, Twister is a little like taking a journey across the continental United States, starting at its most western point and working its way gradually eastward from there.
There are a few bumps on the journey, however. The album closes with “Shasta”, which is an unassuming instrumental number that, even at a tick above two minutes in length, feels a bit long-winded, and its position as the culmination of Twister marks a band with no sense of direction as to where to go from there, or how to properly close off the loose ends of the album. Additionally, whether or not you appreciate Twister overall will be largely dependent on how closely you associate yourself to the large noise conjured up by the likes of Young and J Mascis. And, perhaps unintentionally, the song “Bullet of a Gun” rubs a little close in both title and sonics to the Dream Syndicate’s “Bullet with My Name on It”. Thus, it could be argued that Country Mice are still experimenting with their identity and sound, which is not coincidental considering that Twister is an album about struggling with the very nature of one’s self and belonging.
All in all, though, Country Mice, as a band, feels to be a kind of bastardization of the whole country mouse/city mouse children’s story. In this version, the country mouse travels to the big city and finds that there is much that is remarkable there, and fuses the influences of both home and its newfound place of being. Twister, as a result, is a bit low-key, but confident collection of songs that permeate a sense of place, a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. The nine songs scattered across Twister are all minor gems in their own little way, and are study and workmanlike in their existence. The album is all torch and twang, with guitars plugged into amplifiers with a static-y connection (especially early on), but with a sense of strong melody that, while recalling other sources, is its own stunning concoction of turbulence and passion. The only thing that really remains is whether or not the other city mice will dig these groovy and brittle sounds of Americana as much as their brethren in the Great Plains. Time, if not space, will tell.