At its best, the band shows a remarkable sense of place, but it isn't at its best often enough.
Thrift Store Cowboys have nearly a decade of work behind them now, and the Lubbock, Texas sextet has refined its sound to a sort of country-tinged indie rock that's more concerned with setting and geography than it is with genre. On its latest self-released album Light Fighter, the band tells its stories with a sound that's appropriate for a group that's toured with the Old 97's and Devotchka -- not that they sound like either of those groups, just that we're getting in the ballpark there. Thrift Store Cowboys are a western act, concerned with both expanse and the use of space in little pop songs, and, at their finest, they capture place very well.
The album came about after a fire took the band's gear and merchandise, and nearly got to vocalist/guitarist Daniel Fluitt. He survived (obviously) and started writing this album, which aside from the cover art and album title, doesn't resonate with a pyro-immediacy, but which does exist inside a haunted terrain, where ghost stories and war stories are told just after nightfall.
The group has the ability to stake out its own sonic terrain. While there are comparisons available (Okkervil River comes to mind at times), the band sounds more western than anything -- or at least imaginitively “Western”, not exactly like rubbing sidewinders over cacti. When it works, the music opens up an almost visual identity. However, when it misses, it just turns into campfire staring, without the active reflection.
Opener "One Gentle Inch to Nine Violent Miles" uses a slow build to get the album moving. Within just a few bars, we know where we are, but everyone involved shows considerable restraint. It's a track as much about tone and atmosphere as it is about anything else. The song never fully releases, but the guitar solo near the end clears some space, and brings enough energy that the faster tempo of its successor "Bright Fire" makes sense and continues the work started by "One Gentle Inch".
The band doesn't reach for epic crescendos, but it does know how to structure its songs on those slow rises. "Ghost Trails" adds layers and intensity not to a peak, but to develop its emotional content. It's catchy without feeling pop, and works very well in this context.
On moments like those, Thrift Store Cowboys are a highly compelling act, but unfortunately there just aren't enough of them. Sometimes that Western space is a little too much, swallowing up the energy it should be providing. The tracks "7's and 9's" and "Morning Weekend" both suggest the music of 16 Horsepower in their rolling gravity, but both lack anything like the bracketed frenzy of David Eugene Edwards to turn the sound into true heft.
Fluitt shares vocal duties with Amanda Shires (who released a solo album in 2009), and her tracks are frequently memorable. "Lean into the Sway" provides one of the highlights with its spare sound and memorable melody. Shires shows a nice sense of phrasing and her delivery is engaging without giving too much away. The band might benefit from working her vocals into more numbers and figuring out how to play Fluitt's voice against hers.
Light Fighter delivers a number of strong moments, but it's unfortunate that it doesn't hold up across the entire disc. Thrift Store Cowboys have a compelling aesthetic, but on this album they haven't applied it in as consistent a manner as they're surely capable. Despite some missteps here, the band seems like one capable of putting out a truly memorable record.