Maybe it was an attempt to get played on the radio. Perhaps it was the recent jump from Arista to Lucky Dog Records that had the band a little rattled. Whatever the reason, BR5-49, so known for not sounding like the new wave of country since its first EP Live from Robert's, comes off sounding a bit like all the rest on its new one. And that makes the title This Is BR549 (yes, without the hyphen even) somewhat like a bad practical joke.
The album wants very much to be a good one, though one wouldn't know it from its barely chug-chug-chugging beginning three numbers. BR5-49 (taking its name from Junior Samples' Hee Haw skits) is at its rockabilly best when the honky tonk is molasses thick, borrowing from little-known country gems past, and tossing in a couple of its own. Played fast, it always works, and played slow, it passes most of the time. Straddle that uncomfortable barbed-wire fence, however, and you have, well, "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal", "The Price of Love", and "The Game" -- boring sub genre country that you may find while turning the radio dial, but may just as well not care much about listening to.
But BR5-49 is not boring. It never has been. Its clean-cut Stray-Cats-in-cowboy-boots persona brings out those who listened to Hank Williams on the radio as well as the tattooed and hair-piled-high, greasy Elvis truck-driver types. They may appear worlds apart, but with BR5-49 at the helm of its own ship, everyone can dance to the music being played on deck at The Westerner. Whether it be the so-old-it's-new way of looking at country or even just watching "Smilin'" Jay McDowell slap his stand-up bass so hard you'd think he was trying to break the damn thing, a show gets put on.
God bless Nick Lowe, then, for being the much-needed spice for this party. It's BR5-49's take on the English sometime-rocker's own "Play That Fast Thing One More Time" that does more than add a spark to a slowly-dying brushfire: it tosses jet fuel on it. How so? Well, there's some very fine work on the fiddle by everyman Dave Herron for one. But it's the blend of guitar, vocals, skipping bass and drums that allows everything to come together like a finely-tuned engine, ending without fading, playing it fast until the abrupt final second. A bit ironic that the song is about little more than a band playing at a place called Frankie's that's the life of the party? Maybe the band's singing about itself here? Maybe not. In any case, it's a welcome turn of events from here on out.
Though the downer "A Little Good News" nearly stops what finally needed starting here -- stumbling on subject matter like headline news, the economy, and name-dropping Bryant Gumbel of all people -- the rest of the album plays out like it should have to begin with. Powerful short two- and three-minute displays of rockabilly love from all angles -- wishing a skittish little missy well on her way ("While You Were Gone"), waiting around for sloppy seconds should she appear ("Look Me Up"), and chasing a lady who'll never have anything to do with her crush ("Fool of the Century").
As half an album, this stands the test of time and is a fine continuation of BR5-49's five or so years delivering songs few others dare to. Now if the five guys just stick a bit closer to what they built their fan base on to begin with, that next album will be even better. Perhaps This Is BR549 (And We Mean It This Time) would work well as a title? Just a suggestion.