[26 May 2009]
Ever since their 2004 debut, Alabama alt-country quintet the Dexateens have been progressively honing their chops and turning down the amps, moving from punk fury to No Depression-y Southern Rock Pride – and picking up S.R.P. M.V.P. Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers as a buddy in the process (he co-produced the band’s 2007 offering, Hardwire Healing). With Singlewide—already album number five! – the Dexateens’ continued evolution into the Truckers’ kid brothers continues unabated, and hey, there are worse fates than exploring avenues abandoned by one of America’s top roots rockers, right? Now all they need is a dose of the DBT’s top-to-bottom consistency.
Produced by the band with engineering/mixing help from Mark Nevers (Lambchop), Singlewide is first hellbent on creating a warm backporch-on-a-summer-night vibe… only with bleak, twisted lyrics. Things start simply enough – maybe too simply—with the ‘70s country rock-meets-skronk opening trio of “Down Low”, “Caption”, and “Spark”, but one can almost feel a shift in the wind during the opening lines of the plangent “Missionary Blues”: “My soul has been hardened by the so-called ‘Christian Life’”. It’s a chilling snipe at post-millennial America… or else the band really hates the Louvin Brothers. Let’s assume it’s the former.
From there, Singlewide opens up, from the dusty shuffle of “New Boy”, the urgent “Trail”, and “Same As It Used To Be” where a jarring keyboard squelch, truly out of place on this spare record, is forgiven by the straightforward, stop-you-in-your-tracks realization, “The more I think about it, you don’t love me at all.” It doesn’t get much more direct than that. Of course, with this simple, sere scene in place the ‘Teens go and get crazy on side four; they’re hard men to pin down. “Charlemagne” (no relation to the Hold Steady character) might share some DNA with the Holy Roman Emperor, but frontman Elliott McPherson turns his attention to the Outlaw Jesse James on verse two and Hogan’s Heroes star/noted deviant/autoerotic asphyxiation victim Bob Crane in verse three (“Not a frame did he squander as he worked it on in”) – surely the first and only time those three men have been grouped together. Meanwhile, “The Ballad of Souls Departed” is anchored by an undertow of roiling feedback while post-punky guitar shards splinter all around the country framework of the song: it’s the Peter Murphy/Jay Farrar collab you never knew you needed.
The album proper ends with the whisper-quiet title track – vox, piano, and acoustic guitar – a brief tale of a soul floating up to heaven, best I can tell. It’s the slenderest thread to strand an entire album on, but it must resonate with the band. Then, after the most subdued moment on any Dexateens record, the band closes with “Can You Whoop It”, which is easily the funniest Patterson Hood pisstake put to tape, from the opening line of “I like Ronnie Dio, and I like Vaseline” to “My car’s a Chevy Nova and my woman’s 17” to the total Classic Rock Move guitar solo. Parody/homage/coincidence/etc, it’s got a spark that’s sometimes hidden a little too often on this record.