At the very least, Dean Schlabowske’s Dollar Store project confirms that the man does his best work with Jon Langford in the Waco Brothers, and maybe vice versa. The latter statement is a tougher call, given Langford’s work with the Mekons and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, but hear me out here. I had my hunches when I heard last year’s so-so solo Langford outing, Mayors of the Moon, an album that leaves one yearning for Schlabowske’s down-on-his-luck barroom stomp. Now here comes Dollar Store and with its all-Deano-all-the-time vibe, I find myself missing Langford’s rollicking agitprop. There’s no pleasing some people, I guess. Schlabowske and Langford are alt-country’s answer to Oreos and milk — they’re just not the same without the other. Who knew?
But enough about what’s missing on Dollar Store; it’s no use crying over spilled milk (or is Schlabowske the Oreo? I digress…). What Schlabowske does have will certainly tide Waco Brothers fans over until that band’s next release. He’s assembled a team of crack musicians, including the Waco rhythm section of Joe Camarillo (drums) and Alan Doughty (bass), and two guitar aces up his sleeves in Dave Alvin (alt-country legends the Blasters) and steel pedal god Jon Rauhouse (who has worked with what seems like half of the Bloodshot Records roster). But even with the impressive musical arsenal at his disposal, Schlabowske doesn’t deviate from the formula that has served him well throughout the years. Sure, Schlabowske’s take on alt-country is as welcome (to these ears) and comfortable as a broken-in pair of cowboy boots, but he doesn’t use his new project to raise the musical stakes, either.
Opener “New Country” is a little heavier and a little greasier than Schlabowske’s Waco tunes (though no one would mistake it for a tune from his noise-rock days with Wreck), but his sentiments are still the same: he’s just a guy trying to keep life from passing him by. There are no early clunkers on the album, but Dollar Store doesn’t really find its footing until the fifth track, “North Central Plain”, a loosey-goosey Midwestern roots-rock number that demands to be played while driving with the windows down. (Though among the early tunes, it must be noted, the band acquits itself nicely on an easy-going, irony-free, if completely unnecessary, cover of Cher’s “Believe”. Odds are you’ve heard the original version enough times to last several lifetimes, but the Dollar Store take is worth a few listens. Heck, it’s no worse than Clem Snide’s cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”.)
The album’s middle third is also its strongest. “Button Up” could define Bloodshot’s mathematical raison d’etre of punk plus country equals “insurgent country”. “Enemy”, with Rauhouse on Hawaiian guitar, captures some of Langford’s vitriol: “I need an enemy to put me in the right” — or is he calling Langford out? Though it’s likely the former, discuss amongst yourselves. Meanwhile, “Exit #9” is just another solid road song that’s Schlabowske’s stock and trade.
Dollar Store winds down with the dull-for-its-title “Amazing Disgrace” and during the Bottlerockets-y “Little Autocrat”, one realizes that placeholders such as “Beyond Our Means”, “Explain Away”, and “Working Line”, despite their toe-tappingness and the facility with which Schlabowske crafts a tune, could be the perfect spots for a Jon Langford tune. So here’s the solution: Get a CD player with a disc changer, toss in Dollar Store and Mayors of the Moon, press “random play” and enjoy the lost Waco Brothers album.