Right now I’m reading Annie Proulx’s excellent That Old Ace in the Hole. Set in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle, the novel describes the struggle of old-time cowboys to hang on to a way of life that is quickly disappearing due to globalization and technological advances. The story is filled with lore about barbed-wire fencers, windmill mechanics, and wranglers. Detailed and obviously well researched, Proulx’s novel sings with an authenticity that isn’t boastful, but quiet and knowing.
Hailing from San Francisco, Young People are a trio who combine country and traditional music with a punk rock aesthetic. Led by Katie Eastburn’s youthful but aged howl, Young People’s reverence for their source material would make the old-timers in Proulx’s novel nod with approval. However, Young People bring a scrappy, noisy and minimalist take to the material that is as likely to impress alt-country fans as noise rock enthusiasts.
War Prayers, the band’s sophomore effort, follows on the heels of their widely acclaimed debut full length. With eleven songs, the most striking thing about War Prayers is the brief running time. Just a shade under 25 minutes, most of the songs play out more as campfire songs than full on country tunes. These quick trips into traditional American song don’t diminish from the potency of Young People’s performance. Distilled to only the very essential, War Prayers crackles with intensity.
It is not surprising that guitarist and drummer Jeff Rosenburg was once a member of Load Records noise hooligans Pink & Brown. Opening track “El Paso” opens with rudimentary percussion and guitars washed out in distortion and feedback. Eastburn’s voice, while not seasoned, perfectly suits the raw edged, country-tinged guitar work, bringing much needed warmth to an abrasive musical backdrop.
Young People’s knowledge of traditional American music is evidenced throughout War Prayers. “Tammy Faye” segues into a beautiful closing that mimics work songs one might have heard chain gangs sing. Cloaked in reverb and vocal overdubs, a group of Eastburns passionately sing: “We are all going…” — where to, remains a mystery. “The Valley” sounds like something that would be heard on one of Alan Lomax’s many field recordings of ordinary citizens singing a cappella the songs passed down through their family history. “Rhumba” is a rousing number that evokes the fever pitch of old time gospel.
Not content to merely approximate traditional song, Young People’s punk rock aesthetics nicely contrast the more “ordinary” material. “Dutch Oven” finds Eastburn’s voice holding together otherwise dissonant and freewheeling guitars and minimal percussion. “Stagecoach” is more Sonic Youth than Carter Family, lurching beautifully between Eastburn’s golden-throated vocals and trashed-out guitars and percussion. The beautiful closing track, “The Night of the Hunter”, is a cover of the film’s title track, and is also the album’s longest song. Equally evoking Bjork’s Greenland choir, Elephant 6-esque energy, and punk rock’s three-chord abandon, Young People’s take on this well-loved song is as scattershot as it is engaging.
While so much of the alt-country movement has relied on — and is rooted in — male vocalists (Will Oldham, Jeff Tweedy, Jeff Buckley, Jason Molina), it is nice to see an emergence of female artists taking on the genre. Nina Nastasia, Cat Power, Neko Case, and now Katie Eastburn’s Young People are at the forefront of some of the best and most interesting modern interpretations of traditional songwriting. Even the old cowhands in Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole would have to tip their hat to these talented women.
War Prayers is the messiest and sloppiest alt-country record to appear in a long time but it is also one of the most bold and original. An equal blend of the traditional and the contemporary, Young People have fashioned an album that is as much a part of the “now” as it is of the “then”.