Brent Amaker and the Rodeo: Year of the Dragon

[14 July 2013]

By Stephen Haag

If there’s one thing that Brent Amaker has made abundantly clear over five years and three albums with his band, the Rodeo, it’s that he’s better than you (whoever you are) and he has no compunction reminding you of this fact. His post-punk take on boom-chicka Johnny Cash country (no, really) has yielded more than a few memorable boasts: “I’m the Man Who Writes the Country Hits” (off 2008 debut Howdy Do!) and 2010’s “Hammer Hits the Nail” (off Please Stand By), equal parts cocky, menacing and clever, anchored by Amaker’s direct phrasing and deep, rich voice, are both worthy additions to 21st century Americana playlists. Having proven—to his satisfaction, at least—his superiority over pretty much every member of the human race, Amaker’s larger-than-life country badass spends much of Year Of The Dragon setting his sights on taking down his biggest nemesis yet down a few pegs: Mother Nature.

First, though, he has to T.C. of some old B., to get himself back into fighting shape: he hunts down a woman on the lam (“You’re the prey / I’m the cat / You’re the fish that just got caught”) over surf/spy movie licks on the opening boastathon “The Tiger Inside”; then delivers stern lectures (“I put my boots on / One foot at a time / Just like you / That don’t make me your friend”) on “I Put My Boots On” and “What’s Wrong With You” (“You’re choosin’ to be losin’ / If you let the choice be made for you”). Basically, no one can ever hope to top him in life, and only a fool would try. Amaker’s voice sells it, for sure, and never slips into didacticism. In fact, you almost want to apologize to him for not meeting his high standards. This shtick is the band at its best, the braggart frontman taken to the extreme.

As for the Brent-Amaker-vs.-Mother-Nature title bout, in some places it works, as on the dusty spaghetti western soul-searching journey through deserts, mountains and oceans, ultimately recognizing the awesome, savage, uncaring force of nature on “Death Is Always Near”. In others, it gets a little clunky: “One Idea” is a brief history of civilization that’s surely the only post-punk country tune (though I’ll have to check with Jon Langford) to feature the lyric “Viruses continue to mutate”. It’s a big concept, and album centerpiece, that the band can’t quite get around. Meanwhile, the maniacal titular narrator of “Captain of the Ship” threatens to take everyone onboard down with him while railing, “Mother Nature, I got no respect for you!” Hmpf.

By album’s end, though, Amaker loses some of his razor-sharp focus: he’s done fighting and promises a live crowd a fun night on “Tequila Cerveza”, falls in love (!) with some help from a harp and assorted strings on “Footsteps Lead The Way”, and then warns another woman about his wandering ways on the closing “Hustler”. It’s a quiet ending for a bombastic guy, but no doubt Amaker will be back strong with a new set of reasons why you suck and he rules.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/173261-brent-amaker-the-rodeo-year-of-the-dragon/