A couple of years back, I was working at a college radio station in Boston. On the New Music shelf in the studio was a CD, Boo-Tay, from a group called Bare Jr, and our station was playing the first single, “You Blew Me Off”. On each jewel case was a white sticker with a mini-review so a DJ would know what genre a given CD was. On Boo-Tay, some enthusiastic reviewer had scrawled “The Next Big Thing!!!” Now, this was around 1998, in the waning days of both mainstream alt-country and grunge booms, so this four-word review was a bit shortsighted, and Boo-Tay sunk like a stone. Why do I share this anecdote? Since that off-the-mark prediction, Bobby Bare Jr., son of venerated country singer Bobby Bare, dismantled Bare Jr, formed the Young Criminals’ Starvation League, and couldn’t sound happier not worrying about becoming the Next Big Thing.
The YCSL released a fantastic debut disc on Bloodshot, and now along comes OK, I’m Sorry, the perfect companion piece to the self-titled LP. To these ears, OK, I’m Sorry is everything an EP should be — offbeat covers, demos, outtakes, and live numbers. Hell, why isn’t the Young Criminals’ Starvation League the Next Big Thing?
That thought notwithstanding, Bare Jr., free of expectation, has expanded his sound with the YCSL. Not content to dabble merely in rock and alt-country, he’s added pop and soul with fantastic results. “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (a.k.a. “The Coca-Cola Song from the ’70s”) would normally be a target for derision (original performers the Hillside Singers were nothing if not easy targets, especially now), but in Bare Jr.’s hands, it sounds right. His warm, honeyed voice and friendly drawl are the perfect delivery system for the tune’s admittedly hippie-dippie message (if Bare Jr.’s singing of the line “grow apple trees and honey bees” doesn’t make you smile, nothing will), and back-up singers Kami Lyle and Carey Kotsionis make the song sound even bigger. Lyle’s sunny trumpet and Tony Crow’s plinking piano are icing on the cake (or ice in the Coke, as the case may be).
The rest of OK, I’m Sorry is originals penned by Bare Jr. (though the charming “Pinky” was co-written by alt-country oddball Tywanna Jo Baskette, and also appears on her debut, Fancy Blue), and they shine a light on what an accomplished songwriter and arranger he is — a fact often lost in the noisy racket of his earlier band. The angsty “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville” (recorded live in Holland, but originally from the YCSL debut) finds Bare Jr.’s raspy voice banging into Chris Masterson’s Mando guitar lines, before it all dissolves into a crazy carousel of a coda. It’s not pop and it’s not country; it’s Bobby doing his own thing.
Several live tracks highlight what a tight touring unit the YCSL is, even if they were recorded at “a drunken show at the Abby Pub” in Chicago. The live take of “I’ll Be Around” (there’s also a pared-down demo take on OK, I’m Sorry) is the album’s centerpiece, brimming with horns and almost too much blue-eyed soul. Bloodshot’s press release calls it “the catchiest song ever released” on their label, which is debatable (my vote goes to Neko Case’s “Whip the Blankets” or Old 97’s “Doreen”, but that’s just me), but there’s no denying that Bare Jr. has an uncanny knack for tossing out beautiful-loser songs with soul. Hopefully Ryan Adams is taking notes.
The live-at-a-Seattle-radio-station “Mother Ucker” (presumably cleaned up) is another slice of melancholy, as the band skirts reggae (to these ears) while Bare Jr. laments “When the devil needs help / Why does he always call me?”. Good stuff, to be sure, but “Mother Ucker”‘s golden moment comes in the form of a false ending that completely throws the unsuspecting DJ for a loop when Dani Schroader’s drums start up again. Only on a loosey-goosey EP like this one.
If that’s not silly enough for ya’, there’s a deranged interpretation of Shel Silverstein’s enormously tall tale “True Story” (which incidentally appeared on Bobby Bare Sr.’s 1973 album, Lullabies, Legends and Lies). Bare Jr.’s version, stripped down to guitar, piano, and harmonica, was left off the Bloodshot children’s release The Bottle Let Me Down; it’s chief selling point on OK, I’m Sorry is what kept it off Bottle: it’s pretty damn weird (“I stepped into some quicksand, and no matter how I tried / I couldn’t get out ’till I met a crocodile named Clyde / Who took me to some cannibals who planned to have me fried”).
With OK, I’m Sorry, Bobby Bare Jr. is firing on all cylinders; there’s not a wasted note or false sentiment. Folks in the late ’90s might not have bought, literally or figuratively, Bare Jr.’s alt-rock phase — despite a certain college radio station’s attempts — but that doesn’t mean people should make the same mistake twice.