It's never a promising sign when the story of how a band formed is more interesting than the music said band creates. Pity Meanflower, then, which (if the band's press release is to be believed) formed "late one muddy night in August 2000 at the Galax Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Virginia", and commenced to tour Virginia and North Carolina in a beat-up RV called Lazy Daze. Sure, it's idyllic and a better band genesis than, say, the Backstreet Boys, but somebody should've told the guys in Meanflower -- brothers Dave (vocals, guitar, dobro) and Tom McCormack (accordion keyboards), Lewis Harris (bass) and Tom McCormack (drums) -- to concentrate less on the band's mythology and more on writing memorable songs for their debut album, . . . a distant episode.
Album opener "White Sands" sums up the approach Dave McCormack takes to songwriting: spare, down tempo and with few memorable hooks. The band, nearly to a song, finds a simple rhythm and rides it as far as it will go. On top of that, McCormack's voice -- a modest instrument -- often abandons singing altogether in favor of alt-country's answer to Sprechstimme. When he does sing, his voice alternates between agreeable-enough rasps. And in a genre full of "modest" singers -- Jeff Tweedy and Joe Pernice, to name two -- it remains unclear why McCormack is uncomfortable singer.
Of course, Tweedy and Pernice are master lyricists. McCormack limits himself to songs about girls leaving ("Portland", which is bright enough, but has nothing on the Replacements' thematically-similar and identically-titled B-side), girls he's leaving (the too precious "Baby's off to Sleep"), and lonely lives on the road ("Postmark New Mexico", "Up North", and "Baltimore"). Though in defense of "Baby's off to Sleep", the song does feature . . . a distant episode's best lyrical imagery, via the half-whispered line, "My Dodge waits by the curbside / This is the night I'm gonna slip away".
To these ears, Meanflower aim to capture the kitchen-table-recording intimacy of the aforementioned Pernice's Scud Mountain Boys, but they come up short. The acoustic "She Don't Care" is the kind of performance that gets tuned out at open mic nights. Meanwhile, "In" opens with what sounds like the band recording in McCormack's attic before moving to the studio to allow guest musician Chris Eldridge (of the Seldom Scene) to turn in a blues-rock guitar solo that proves to be one of the album's high points (another highlight being Eldridge's solo on "A Place I've Never Known").
However, there is a track where Meanflower put it all together: "Only Thing I Ever Wished For" finds McCormack's voice at its sturdiest, accompanied by a decent uptempo hook, with Tom McCormack's accordion proving to be a lively asset. But "Only Thing I Ever Wished For" is the album's fifth track, so getting to it requires slogging through the first four songs, then wishing that the seven songs that follow it matched its energy and verve.
Produce Peter Griesar and engineer Rod Coles keep the production clean and spare . . . except when they don't, and the results are jarring. Outside of "Only Thing I Wished For", the accordion's drone on tracks like "Portland" and "Postmark New Mexico" serves to remind listeners that the songs aren't building towards anything. And having cymbals stand in for the wind on the album's autumnal closer, "Back in One Piece" seems like a clever idea on paper, but in practice is a distracting and incongruous exercise. And while I'm carping, shouldn't a band that met at a fiddle convention release an album that features fiddling?
In a year with an early alt-country debut pacesetter in Kathleen Edwards' "Failer", Meanflower doesn't have the horses to run with the big boys. They do have a good story to tell the grandkids about how they formed, though.