Humor and music, for some, may be chocolate and peanut butter (or hazelnut, for our European friends). For most of us though, it’s chocolate and orange-only once in a while do we get the craving to laugh with the stereo on. Country music in particular has a hit-or-miss relationship with joking around. It’s either unintentionally funny (mostly to those who hate the genre), or it’s Jeff Foxworthy-worthy. All of this makes the Meat Purveyors’ Pain by Numbers quite perplexing. By no means is this a comedic album, but a fundamental sense of humor underlies even the darkest moments, and the results are fun, challenging, and devoid of cheese. The title, Pain by Numbers, perfectly embodies the album’s dual nature, an aw-shucks pun on the its most heartbreaking and arresting original, “Paint by Numbers”.
“TMP Smackdown” kicks and bucks right out of the gate, even beginning with a classic set-up: “A guy walks up to a girl in a bar and asks ‘What do you do?’/ She says ‘TAR!'” A speed-grass account of a talented but heroin-addicted local musician, the song shows a mixture of empathy and disapproval for its subject. Lines like “her boyfriend as useless as tits on a bull” keep the song miles from finger-wagging D.A.R.E. polemics, while lead singer Jo Stanli Cohen delivers “GO!” and “UH!” with more conviction than Zach De La Rocha in a designated protest zone.
Like most of the songs on Pain by Numbers, “TMP Smackdown” speeds by in just over 2 minutes. The head of steam that the album builds on the first half can leave you breathless after a few listens, until the nuances of each song begin to reveal themselves. “How Can I Be So Thirsty Today?” is another TMP original with plenty to grin and think about, the punch-line being “When I had so much to drink last night?” The caffeinated bluegrass playing and lyrical theme might sound hokey on paper (country songs about drinkin’ with a funny refrain? Ever heard one?), but the writing and musicianship make it clear this is no naive exercise in copping “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin'”. Thank guitarist/songwriter Bill Anderson for penning “Now I’m chasing three aspirin with a tall-boy / To get this pressure off my head”, a line that should single-handedly unite the oldest and youngest generations of Pabst drinkers.
Ultimately, and to the band’s credit, its original material remains the most compelling. Half of the songs on Pain are covers, and of those about half match the quality of their best work. This is not to say that any of the songs are duds, or are executed poorly, rather that the best covers are both enhanced by TMP’s personalized stamp, and push them into new melodic territory. Dusty Springfield’s chestnut, “In the Middle of Nowhere”, is a prime example of this, with its call-and-response verses and intriguing chord progression. The Fleetwood Mac cover “Monday Morning”, with its Gram Parsons-era Byrds feel, illuminates connections between that band and the So-Cal country-tinged rock that followed in its wake. Johnny Paycheck’s “It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You)” also feels at home amongst the Meat-y originals, and provides the album’s first moment to catch one’s breath with its relatively slow pace, giving Cohen an opportunity to try a little tenderness.
The album’s revelations are the aforementioned “Paint By Numbers”, with its exquisite melody and clever yet touching lyrics, and the arresting closer “Car Crash”. “Paint By Numbers” defies adequate description except to say that if justice exists in this world, it will endure as well as the covered material amidst which it resides. “Car Crash” literally careens out of the speakers, and completes the album’s circle from heroin to harrowing. Then, before you know it, it’s all over. The production and recording are mercifully straightforward and not overcooked. While I imagine that TMP can’t help but be more exhilarating onstage, their raucous energy is well preserved here, perfect for when you want your country both gritty and playful, pensive and propulsive, chocolate and orange.