Pop music vocals are odd things — no one has any idea what makes them good. I love Craig Finn, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Jello Biafra, none of whom can sing a lick. Why? I don’t really know. I’d like to think it’s that they sound personal or truthful or alive, but it’s probably just that their tones resonate with something inside my skull. Either way, I won’t argue about voices. The ear has reasons that reason cannot know.
In other words, my problems with Great American Bubble Factory by veteran southern rock band Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ are entirely my own. I just don’t like the way this dude sings. His name is Kevn Kinney, and he’s still rocking the same adenoidal pop-punk-with-a-twang voice he debuted back in the mid-’80s.
In fact, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ sound largely like they did in the Reagan era, aside from a little newly acquired and ill-fitting studio sheen. They’re still skillfully mixing hard rock, folk, punk and country. They’re still singing about being broke and pissed, about American rust and spiritual rot. It worked a quarter of a century ago and it works now. Rather than frantically chase the moving zeitgeist, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ sat stubbornly in place, waiting for the clock to come back around to midnight. It did, and Great American Bubble Factory sort of serves as a makeshift concept album about the economic collapse, though its songs of struggle and disappointment, of one step forward and two steps back, could have come from any album in the band’s catalogue.
Though their jaundiced view of late-period capitalism is focused and unflinching, their music is wide and versatile, wrapping its long arms around Skynyrd, Townes Van Zandt, KISS, the Cars, Brian Wilson, Springsteen and ZZ Top. The sounds can be scattershot, even a little incoherent, but the theme brings it all together. If it ultimately works it’s due to the force of Kinney’s vision, the underdog status he’s entirely earned through decades of trying and failing to bust out of the bar-rock C-list.
The album’s best moments are its unexpected touches: the pedal steel in “I See Georgia” tunelessly dragging down the fretboard, less a musical flourish than the howl of a dying animal; the ragged Beach Boys harmonies in “Get Around Kid”; the soulful and cheesy Eddie Van Halen guitar solos that first make you cringe and then, unexpectedly, move you a little. Even Kinney’s voice, which still bugs me, is undoubtedly his own, wholly unapologetic in its nasal flatness. There’s an stubborn insistence, a sort of sneering southern pride, and it somehow renders their anachronisms and unhip characteristics moot.
Great American Bubble Factory is a work of enormous personality and sincerity, a rueful opus trying hard to embrace a hopeless future. We need more art like this. Even if I can’t say I really love the album, I want to stand up in support of guys like Kinney, men with big battered hearts on their sleeves and hands white-knuckled on the wheel. In the face of an indifferent music industry and a starry-eyed Clinton decade, they adhered to their vision and stuck to their guns. By spending two generations standing perfectly still, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ have somehow found themselves ahead of the game.