For the past 15 years or so, the Americana subgenre of Gothic Country has been steadily growing, populated by musicians who listen equally to Hank Williams and Misfits. With almost two decades of experience and umpteen albums, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club are the veterans of the scene. Combining punk, old time country, and sheer Pentecostal energy, SCAC could probably be described as making church music — not the anemic treacle of contemporary Christian music and mega-churches, but creepy backwoods churches, where there’s snake handling, speaking in tongues, and very possibly moonshine-induced fistfights in the parking lot. It seems as though Slim Cessna’s style is a perfect fit for Alternative Tentacles, Jello Biafra’s record label; on the surface these songs have more in common with Dead Kennedys than Johnny Cash, though it seems safe to say that the Man in Black would appreciate the fire and brimstone, salvation and damnation, that runs through the album.
Cipher immediately lives up to its name thanks to its cryptic liner notes, written in, of course, cipher. While this is all well and good, it does kind of defeat the information-conveying purpose of liner notes. Once the track listing has been deciphered, it becomes obvious that there is a motif running through the album: four of the 15 songs are titled “An Introduction to the Power of Braces” with the respective subtitles “Arms”, “Legs”, “Teeth”, and “Faith”. The general theme of these songs is that oft-painful braces are used to straighten and strengthen physical bodies, so why not use them for spiritual bodies? It’s a good point, especially in these days of soft, easy faith.
It’s not all fundamentalist fervor here; SCAC tackles Woody Guthrie with “This Land is Your Land Redux”. Like the original, “Redux” is a protest song, but with a violent twist Guthrie’s work never had. Slim Cessna also seems to be a graduate of the Sufjan Stevens School of Strange Song Titles: Cipher includes numbers such as, “All About the Bullfrog in 3 Verses” and “That Fierce Cow is Common Sense in a Country Dress”. Luckily, the lyrics are as interesting as the song titles, and a nice break from Slim Cessna’s street preaching. The strongest song of the record is “Children of the Lord”, a hard driving gospel song that could make a believer out of just about anyone. Hell, even if you’re not a believer, you just might find yourself tapping your foot and singing along to its catchy chorus.
While Cipher doesn’t immediately grab the listener, it slowly works its way into heavy rotation: after listening to the record the first time, I was unimpressed. After listening to it over a dozen times, I’m convinced it’s SCAC’s strongest record to date. So if you’ve got some money left in your economic stimulus package, well, stimulate the economy and check out Cipher. The religious fervor of frontmen Slim Cessna and Munly may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there are worse ways to drop some cash. And if you really want to be entertained, check out Slim Cessna’s Auto Club live; chances are it’ll be the best money you’ll spend all year.