Some people have a bone to pick with the term “alt-country”, but over the years, I find myself reaching for it in place of other labels like “Americana” or “roots music”. In describing favorite artists such as Old 97s or early Wilco, alt-country seems to best capture the idea of what the genre is to me: American country music played by and for people who grew up listening to punk rock and have a lot more Ramones in their record collections than anything to come out of Nashville post-1970s. I have never loved any artist who could qualify for a CMA in the last couple of decades, so the only kind of country that speaks to me is either the old kind, or the alt kind.
Whatever you want to call it, San Diego’s John Meeks does it smashingly. His new record, Old Blood was released on Loud and Clear Records on May 18, and was produced at Stereo Disguise Recording Laboratories, brainchild of Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins. The new record became one of my most hotly anticipated releases of this year when I caught wind of the first single, “Been Down By Love”, which I rhapsodized about here.
The song is so beyond, and gave me such an image of the sweet, melancholy romantic that Meeks must be, that I was surprised by the violence on Old Blood. Don’t let the man’s tender tenor fool you: he’s got a dark side. And the juxtaposition of the sweetness and menace are part of what makes the music so compelling.
The opening track, “Bay Moon”, starts off pleasantly enough in the grand tradition of its inspiration, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. Sure, our hero’s love is already foolin’ around on him, but he’s not doing much about it other than crying down by the river. On “Oh My Sweet Darlin'”, he is reduced to asking, “Where’d you run to? / And where’d you put your dress?” But the song sounds so, well, sweet that you might find yourself having a WTF? moment at the end when he sings”I didn’t mean, love / To hurt you there / And tear your dress / And pull your hair / But you wouldn’t listen / You ran insane / Now you won’t leave me ever again.” This must be how Beatles fans felt upon their first listen to Rubber Soul in 1965, bobbing along blissfully to the rest of the tracks and then getting slapped upside the head at the end, hearing their lovable mop top John Lennon sing “Well, I’d rather see you dead little girl / Than to be with another man”. Damn, John!
The ultra-noir murder ballad “Jeff’s Lament” runs in the same if-I-can’t-have-you-then-nobody-can vein, but it is also the strongest track on the album after “Been Down By Love”, both sonically and lyrically. The driving train beat, along with the mournful fiddle and horns, supply just the right amount of tension to support the despair of words like “Your love cut a hole in me / Now I’m falling through”. As simple as this music is, Old Blood has a cinematic quality that makes it feel expansive at the same time.
This is not to say that we get nothing but villainy from Mr. Meeks, as there is indeed a hopeless romantic at heart. “I’m Alone, I Am Lonely”, “Long Gone Home”, “I See Your Lips” — all of these showcase the pain of love in various stages of absence and disrepair that is the bread and butter of the singer-songwriter. John Meeks doesn’t revolutionize the genre in any way, but his take on it is masterful, beguiling and eminently listenable. And if I owned a record store, I would file it under “alt-country”.