On their debut, Wrecked, recorded last year at Easley-McCain Studios, Halfacre Gunroom's straightforward, Southern-rock- and punk-inflected alt-country evokes the spirit of that scene before No Depression magazine and puritanical roots fetishists turned the genre into self-parody. They don't so much sound like Uncle Tupelo or '80s precursors such as the Blasters and Long Ryders, but they feel that way, matching the rough spirit of country and punk coming together free from self-consciousness.
Compared to other recent rootsy Memphis bands such as Lucero, the North Mississippi Allstars, and the Riverbluff Clan, Halfacre Gunroom is less distinct musically (which means they seem less intent on carving a sonic identity than putting across the songs), but the group boasts perhaps a sharper songwriting voice. The band (singer/guitarist Bryan Hartley, guitarist Brian Wallace, drummer Justin Fox Burks, pianist/organist Aaron Brame, and bassist Christopher Cary) attacks Hartley's songs as an alternating mix of punk-rocking rave-ups and country dirges, with Hartley's deep, rough, rich voice up top.
But Hartley's songs themselves are the showcase: Wrecked conveys a grit-lit sensibility -- the band's name comes from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!; one of the band's promo photos shows an amp emblazoned with the words "I Heart Donna Tartt" -- that's both plainspoken and sneakily poetic. The album feels autobiographical, whether it is or not, a lovesick-bruise of a record that contains enough relationship-gone-bad songs to come off as a concept album. With certain images connecting different songs -- the blasted November wind, the year 1989 -- Wrecked feels like a 15-year journey through a couple of broken relationships (one viewed with anger; the other, loving regret, or so it seems) that also serves as a coming-of-age trip from high school to adulthood.
As with so many male song-cycles about girls who got away, one yearns to hear the other side of the story, but Wrecked avoids the casual misogyny that so often afflicts albums of this sort. Part of what rockets it past such potential pitfalls is the palpable, lived-in detail of Hartley's songs (he's writing about a girl, not the Girl) and the class animus that underscores the record's most bitter moments: "1989," set a decade after the titular year, looking back on a young love that didn't last, ends with the kissoff "He bought you a house right off Poplar/He's alright, but he ain't no doctor/I'm sure he makes a mighty fine check/I'm sure he's everything your momma expected." And the mocking "East Memphis Girls" spits, "East Memphis Girls only want to get married You better have some money, she don't care about cool." But there's also a generosity to the memory-soaked laments in other songs.
If the tales on Wrecked really are as personal as they sound, Hartley is skilled enough to make strangers care. The closing "The Winter Wind" cryptically connects the global to the personal, but by the end you'll feel like you remember that September party as well as his friends. And then the epic "Wheels Roll North" points to a future beyond the confessional. Like a good short story in song form, it dances around a bowling-alley moment of decision between a girl who thinks she's a lesbian and the boy who loves her still. -- Chris Herrington
Halfacre Gunroom will celebrate the release of Wrecked Saturday, June 26th, with a 5 p.m. performance at Shangri-La Records.
The Magnetic Fields
"No synths," boasts the liner notes for i, the newest Magnetic Fields album. Based on i's goodness-not-greatness, it seems like a tactical blunder for an avowed and accomplished ironist like Stephin Merritt to sing solo without the cover of the most ironic pop instrument ever invented. The synthesizer (which can produce a sound like another instrument, but not really, get it?) was present on almost all of the band's previous releases, and it played an important role in the band's conceptual intelligence and its consciously deconstructive musical and lyrical approach to moon-June-spoon rhyme schemes and the pop song's historical and emotional limitations. Me, I really enjoyed the contrast between the huge, electronic walls of synthetic sound and Merritt's steadily low, blank voice. It sounded like Hank Williams' tone-deaf ghost fronting Kraftwerk or HAL 9000 if he were programmed to create music instead of pilot a spaceship. And I gradually made peace with the fact that Merritt and his cohorts never meant a word of any brilliant "love" song they ever sang, even if 1998's masterful 69 Love Songs broke my heart in a million ways.
So if other Magnetic Fields records have been concept albums about tropes like "the road" and "loneliness" and "love," then this new release is about "the self." And as it turns out, the band does not find "the self" or the letter "i" very interesting. That is okay. It's hard to write honestly or dishonestly about who you are or who you might be, and it's often unnecessary. The masquerade and the false image are useful, possibly essential tools for long-term success in the pop world. But one thing a mask can't hide is a lazy, good-for-nothing, slow melody that goes no place. And there are some serious snoozers here, with "I Die" and "I Was Born" the worst offenders. Some songs -- "If There's Such a Thing as Love" and "It's Only Time " -- would fit very well on a delicate mix tape for a bright, special someone, but this pains me because such surgery has been difficult to perform in the past. It pains me more that my absolute favorite song here (and a personal suggestion for anyone who takes this group too seriously), "I Don't Believe You," is also six years old. -- Addison Engelking
Another week, another heavily hyped band from New York City. Like so many second-tier groups -- Stellastarr*, Interpol, On!Air!Library! -- Ambulance LTD. flaunt an overpunctuated band name and a sound heavily influenced mostly by older New York bands such as the Velvet Underground. (They even cover Lou Reed's "The Ocean" on a hidden track.) However, unlike some of their Big Apple contemporaries, Ambulance mold their obvious influences into sturdy, catchy pop on their surprisingly solid debut, simply titled LP.
The lead-off instrumental, "Yoga Means Union," switches tempos and styles to form an overture from which songs like "Heavy Lifting" and "Stay Where You Are" derive their moody, dreamy pop and "Michigan" and "Sugar Pill" their moody atmospherics. Singer Marcus Congleton has a knack for urbane melodies and thoughtful lyrics. His intentions are not always clear ("Ophelia") and occasionally he lapses into uninspired motifs ("Stay Tuned"), but usually his words add to the sense of loss that pervades the album ("Michigan").
LP, however, is as much about sound as it is about songs: Besides the instrumental opener, which is one of the album's longest tracks, "Heavy Lifting" switches abruptly from propulsive pop to a lengthy, airy coda, and the stand-out track, "Stay Where You Are," begins with almost two full minutes of keyboards and backward-running guitars, which will surely frustrate mix-tapers.
Still, Ambulance lack many of the pretensions that plague some of their peers. Even if they draw from the same well of new wave and shoegazer influences, the music never sounds like part of a scene. -- Stephen Deusner