Bobby Bare, Jr.'s new solo album, Young Criminals' Starvation League, marks a bit of a departure from the Southern Rock sound of his band Bare Jr., and from the sound of it, the change is for the better. On this immensely likeable album, Bare gives us his own unique twist on the alt-country genre. Combining dry humor with heart-rending character sketches, pretty, gentle melodies, his own drawled vocals, a couple of shrewdly-chosen covers, and a little bit of soul, this album proves Bare is ready to establish a promising solo career for himself.
Bare's character sketches are the first songs that get your attention. "Flat Chested Girl From Maynardville" (what a great title) paints a heartbreaking picture of a lonely wallflower: "While standing on her bed she screams words that fall onto her sheets / No one pays attention to me." Over a light waltz accompaniment and backed up by comely female backing vocals, Bare sings of trading "her CD's for weed and ecstasy", and "skipping school to stay home and read", as the heroine of the story struggles to find an identity in a world she feels alienated from. Just as melancholy is "The Monk at the Disco", a song that combines both country and rock sounds with light humor (very much like Wilco's "Heavy Metal Drummer"), as Bare describes the empty souls of club scenesters, singing, "Dancing machines with broken feet / Glamorize their desperate needs / And have no use for what is true / And hide behind those who do."
Two songs on Young Criminals' Starvation League utilize a horn section much like the way Kurt Wagner's songs do in Lambchop, peppering gentle country melodies with some soul. "I'll Be Around" is a winner of a song, instantly memorable, thanks to its "pa-pa-pa" horns melody. Bare sings his plaintive lyrics ("I'm in the same place that you left me / Caressing your memory") like a Southern Adam Duritz (Counting Crows). In fact, he does Duritz so well that you realize how inferior Counting Crows' music actually is compared to this. "The Ending" uses similar horns, with their harmonies adding some optimism as a counterpoint to Bare's desolate song, during which he sings of a former girlfriend's toothbrush on a sink, and dried lipstick on a coffee cup.
The album's two cover songs are remarkable. Bare's rendition of The Smiths' classic "What Difference Does It Make" is converted into a steel guitar-enhanced country tune so well that it's almost rendered unrecognizable, with Morrissey's melancholy lyrics disguised by the upbeat acoustic guitar accompaniment. Just as good is the cover of Shel ("Cover of the Rolling Stone") Silverstein's "Painting Her Fingernails"; not only is it a stunning version of the song, but it also shows how well Bare's own songs hold up to such a great description of loneliness as Silverstein's. The song, featuring backing vocals by Bare's dad, is gutwrenching: "She could fix a cheese sandwich but someone may ask her to dinner / On her desk is a macramé she started back last December / She undresses seductively in front of Johnny Carson." Silverstein's poetry is dead-on, and Bare's delivery is, as well.
As good as most of the songs on Young Criminals' Starvation League are, though, "Dig Down" is the tune that steals the show. A Gen-X howl of creative despondency, Bare is brimming with sarcastic humor as he "thanks" The Who, the Beatles, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Chuck Berry for using up all the best ideas in rock and roll music before Bare's own generation even had a chance ("My Fender is just a painted board / And if I light it on fire I become such a fucking bore"). It starts off as funny, but it starts to sound more heartfelt and desperate as the song goes along. "If rock and roll dies it's not my fault," Bare sings, "I do the best with the left-overs that I got," as the song concludes with an intentionally snide rip-off of the "woo-hoo" vocals from the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and a plea for Chuck Berry to make one more triumphant return "before Fred Bisquit freezes everybody's mind".
The rest of the album is solid, but two songs don't quite reach the heights of Bare's other seven original songs: "Mehan" is a spare, emotional plea in the same vein as the classic folk ballads of the early 20th century, and "Bullet Through My Teeth" comes closest to sounding like a throwaway track, the only time Bare uses a tired country cliché in his songs. The pleasant "Stay in Texas" is a welcome change from the usual melancholy, and the song is aided by those inimitable female backing vocals that add such a perfect touch to the album.
An album like Young Criminals' Starvation League is always a pleasure to come across. The combination of both musical and lyrical smarts, coupled with a good sense of humor that adds some levity to the music, is a rare thing to find among younger singer-songwriters, and with this record, Bobby Bare, Jr. shows us all he's more than capable of pulling it off.