Don’t let the title of British alt-country quartet Minibar‘s sophomore disc, Fly Below the Radar, fool you; they’re not aiming so low that you won’t miss them if they fail — they’re too sharp to fail. Rather, let the title free you. After all, Minibar — guitarist/singer Simon Petty, bassist Sid Jordan, guitarist Tim Walker, and drummer Malcolm Cross — is quite content doing its own thing, whether anyone takes notice or not. Especially after its debut, 2001’s Road Movies, received no backing from then-label Universal. As Petty recounts in the July/August issue of No Depression, life after Universal “forced [Minibar] to become a much tighter unit not just musically, but as a band in the broadest sense of the word.”
Petty is true to his word. Like their fellow countryman, Peter Bruntnell, Minibar has a knack for cranking out beautiful, dusty, alt-country descriptions of their adopted homeland — the Southwest US. But it’s worth making a comparison to the slightly-better-known Bruntnell. Where Bruntnell offsets his quiet moments with willful weirdness (see “By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix” or “Tabloid Reporter”), Minibar sticks to the plaintive pedal steel lament. Album opener “It Is What It Is” sets the desert-vibe template that runs through all of Fly Below the Radar. With an air of Zen peace and the autumnal chill of the guitar and keyboards, the song’s pounding bridge comes as a surprise. Minibar may not wander too far from the trail, but it can find a hook in even the simplest song. Which is a good thing, otherwise Fly Below the Radar would trigger a rash of suicides. “Unstoppable” finds Petty noting that “I’ve been alone for so long / Sometimes I don’t know what to say”. An album full of lyrics like that and you’ll find yourself hoping for some Bruntnellian kookiness. Fortunately, the middle of the album is brightened by the funky “Somebody Down Here Loves You”. Delivered with a knowing wink by Petty (the son of a vicar, as is Jordan), this tune of earthly delights is the alt-country equivalent to Matthew Sweet’s “Evangeline”.
But then it’s back to the lonesome trail, and by now Fly Below the Radar is either thematically cohesive or thematically oppressive. I’m opting for the former, as there’s an unmistakable quiet charm informing even the lesser songs. “Martha” approximates a dustier Willard Grant Conspiracy, loosed from its chamber (WGC itself a band that exudes quiet charm). “Martha” is inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — in the words of fellow alt-countryman Jeff Tweedy: “He takes all his words from the books that you don’t read anyway” (yes, I know it’s a play). Meanwhile, the title track boasts the album’s fist-pumpingest chorus. These guys can rock out when they need to, but they also excel at tunes like the acoustic “Badlands”, which is haunted by ghostly violins and images of Joshua trees as a “field of crucifixion trees”. Taken as a whole, Minibar is not tears-in-your-beer music; it’s more pull over on a deserted stretch of Texas highway, sit on the roof of your car and count the stars music. Surely there’s a pithier description of their niche, but whatever.
Minibar is content to let the experience and idea of the Southwest US wash over it, not actively seeking out the heart of the region which is also the best way to “get” Fly Below the Radar. “Fragile”, every bit the road song with its spacey keyboards, recalls the Zen air of “It Is What It Is”: “There nothing we can do anyway / So just smile and tell yourself it’ll be okay” — and coming out of Petty’s mouth, it’s not so much sad as it is true (and maybe it doubles as the band’s mantra after their dealings with the major labels).
While it’s asking a lot to rely on four transplanted Londoners to approach alt-country’s mid-’90s heyday, Fly Below the Radar is the kind of record many alt-country fans have been waiting for since Son Volt’s Trace. Those records may not come around often anymore, but when they do, take notice.