[19 January 2005]
If you’re feeling like a lazy bastard and need an inspirational kick in the fanny, the prescribed remedy has been discovered to equal one and a half Split Lip Rayfield songs. Listening to “Truth & Lies” on their latest album, Should Have Seen It Coming, I can feel beads of sweat forming on my brow. In the Bloodshot tradition of uncompromising blue-collar roots-rock, the album is 16 tracks of fierce bluegrass concerning such favorite subjects as booze and women. But while track titles like “Redneck Tailgate Dream” might give you nightmares about the time you accidentally watched five minutes of Blue Collar TV, the songs themselves will only keep you awake because you’re dancing. Three of the four members contribute songwriting efforts, and the fourth plays a stand-up bass made out of a gas tank. You don’t mess with a guy like that.
Bluegrass is a tough genre in which to write consistently distinguishable songs, but Split Lip succeeds nine times out of ten, and the mind simply reels at the thought of a live performance. I was first drawn to the last track, “Just Like a Gillian Welch Song”, for obvious reasons. A bit like reading the final paragraphs of a novel first, I could not resist. The title comes from the lyrics, not to any striking similarity to Ms. Welch’s work, although it is one of Seen It Coming‘s quieter songs. But it does demonstrate the fundamentals of Split Lip Rayfield’s work at a slow enough pace that you can discern them: winking humor of the song’s conceit, the airtight rhythm of the instruments, and a devotion to tradition that is decidedly un-slavish. With so many songs to choose from, it becomes a matter of picking favorites. If one fails to engage you as fully as the next, then it’s only two minutes of your time pleasantly tapping your feet.
Every song has at least one thing to recommend it. Eric Mardis’s banjo and Wayne Gottstine’s mandolin get frequent solo workouts, notably on the aforementioned “Truth & Lies” and “Redneck”. “Redneck Tailgate Dream” trots out familiar references to TNN, pick-up trucks, and Uncle Billy Bob with a mixture of scorn and affection, as well as a few surprises like “And if y’all like Batman, we’ll fight you now goddammit”. “Promise Not to Tell” is a beautiful minor key rambler, one of the album’s most original numbers, and a nice departure from the steady stream of rave-ups. “Used to Be” features some fun, soulful vocals and a savvy key change. “A Little More Cocaine Please” should get as much jukebox time at Coyote Ugly in NYC as it will in your favorite Midwestern dive. I’ve thought about this for a while and have decided that it’s ultimately a good thing for both Cash-loving city slickers and blue-collar workingmen to get together and sing the barbershop-close harmonies that erupt for the title line.
The only drawbacks here may depend on what you bring to the table. Punk-speed bluegrass can be quite exhausting, taking as much patience as a 12-minute slow-core drone epic, albeit a different kind of patience. So if you’re a casual fan of rural music forms, dabbling here and there for the occasional dobro or banjo in your diet of AAA, Split Lip might be a bit too bruising, a bit too elemental. But if you count yourself ready for bluegrass music that projects personality, turns country clichés on their heads, and makes yours fingertips ache with sympathy, then get off your lazy, aforementioned ass.