“I’d just like to continue making records and putting them out for a long time to come with people who get it, and want to be involved” is the kind of statement that a musician makes when he’s ready to start over. Jeremy Chatelain has been playing music for years, initially as the singer for the post-hardcore alterna-rock outfit Handsome, but most notably as the bassist and second-fiddle to Blake Swarzenbach in Jets to Brazil. In 2002 that band’s label released a Chatelain solo effort under the moniker Cub Country. His mates in JTB, along with various other NYC musicians, made for an able back-up band and the results were notably refreshing. Chatelain delivered a distinctly personal take on country, folk and traditional music that — at times — showed flashes of brilliance. Since the release of his first full-fledged solo affair, Jets to Brazil has slowly devolved but has yet to officially break up. But that fact seems all the more moot given Chatelian’s relocation to North Carolina and the appearance of this second Cub Country record. Cub Country is now a full-time four piece featuring three North Carolina musicians — Matt Sumrow (bass, keys), Jeff Clarke (guitar, lap steel and vocals) and Justin Ansley (drums). And if you still had any doubts, a recent handful of East Coast club dates with a reunited Sebadoh should speak for itself.
Stay Poor / Stay Happy was recorded at various points across the country over the past two years — including Chatelain’s native Utah, his adopted home of Brooklyn and his new digs in North Carolina. The songs are reflected through the lenses of all three of those places. Whether they are stories of a country boy lying awake in the middle of the night far from home, or a man searching for open space in the newly inhabited west, or the happiness of someone making a fresh start in a new home, they all reverberate with Chatelain’s unique abilities as a songwriter and performer. The arrangements are steeped in country rock history, but rather than turn out retreads, Chatelain has studied his Parsons and Stones and Dylan and thankfully avoided the note-for-note perfection of today’s most popular derivative artists. Chatelain and the boys play with a delightful fallibility that harkens back to the days when Uncle Tupelo was just three guys writing the only music they knew how to write.
The most revelatory cuts on the album brim with the energy of a band in fine form playing with sheer joy. “Missed the Train” has got a hungry Stones swagger and despite the hint of self-deprecation in the lyric “all this trying to move a mountain that won’t move for anyone so old”, the slide licks and bold energy are, in fact, quite moving. The Allman-esque dueling guitars turned power-pop of “Old West” represents a destructively catchy longing for empty spaces and open places. On “The Salt Islands” Chatelain sings like a long-winded and kind-hearted Paul Westerberg over layers and layers of warm guitars. But it’s not all fun and games — along with the rock numbers comes a heavy helping of weepers. But the sadness just barely teeters at the edge of lament before offering a welcome hint of hope. “Be Yer Own Hitman” is a heartbreaking drive down an old friend’s street. The telephone calls in the middle of the night lead to all-too-brief moments of reminiscence over old photos, but in the end the stories bleed themselves dry. There is too much living to do. The work-a-day melancholy of “If We Should Fall” provides a comfortable note of assurance to accompany that long walk to the train. It never dwells to long on the misery without revealing the light at the end of the long tunnel.
If there’s a knock against the album, it’s that some of these songs might be too much a labor of love. At an average running time of around five minutes, Chatelain might be well-served by learning to let go a little sooner — but even the ambitiously spare nine minutes of “59 Grand” resolves itself in a wash of plaintive good-bye. As long as Chatelain is willing to stick it out to the end, we’d be wise to do the same.