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Like those decorative cast-iron skillets you can buy at the Cracker Barrel gift shop, alt-country is just so darn cute. As music movements go, it’s almost congenitally naivea painfully sincere collective of hero worshipers so hopelessly devoted, they’ll shout you down in a crowded bar if you even try to suggest that Sweetheart of the Rodeo isn’t the best record the Byrds ever made or, God forbid, that until he hooked up with Rick Rubin, the late, great Johnny Cash hadn’t made a decent album in a decade.
The thing is, no matter how much time they’ve spent pining away for Gram Parsons or painstakingly working out the chord changes to every song on the George Jones box set, way too many alt-country acts signify at best as museum-quality reproductions and at worst as pure corn pone. If he’s paying attention at all, Glen Campbell must be shaking his head in utter dismay. For this he rode out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo?
I don’t think so. Too much reverence makes the faithful go blind, and it’s possible, after all, to make music so “authentic” it sounds fake. (Just ask Son Volt.) The genre’s real luminariesRank and File, Jason and the Scorchers, X, the Meat Puppetsall brought something new to the game, acknowledging the greatness of the country form even while fucking with it until it was barely recognizable. And the best of today’s practitionersLucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and ex-Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, for my moneyall owe their finest moments more to a knack for irresistible pop hooks than to an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hank Williams canon.
But Trailer Bride, led by saw-playing chanteuse Melissa Swingle, is something else entirely. No doubt about it: These bastards out of North Carolina are honky-tonk poseurs through and through. But as admirers of the quartet’s four previous long-players already know, Trailer Bride doesn’t try to hide the performance-art theatrically of what it’s up to. Far from it: The band seems to revel in its artifice, slathering on the absolute torch and twang to the point that, at its best, Hope Is a Thing With Feathers, the band’s latest CD, sounds like the soundtrack to a particularly dark Faulkner novel or, on its handful of upbeat numbers, the trenchant pop tunes Flannery O’Connor didn’t live long enough to write.
Swingle & Co., however, seem to have other literary antecedents in mind. The album’s title is a misquote from an Emily Dickinson poem that renders hope as a bird “that perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words.” The allusion is inscrutable at first; only one of the tracks here (the gorgeously chiming “Shiloh”) is an instrumental. After a few spins, though, the title starts to make a certain kind of fractured sense. Like Rennie Sparks of country-noir outfit the Handsome Family (which could be Trailer Bride’s kissing cousin), Swingle pens lyrics more evocative than literal, totems of the nearly mythic world she and her band are trying to conjure rather than straightforward descriptions of it.
Sometimes the world Swingle evokes isn’t pretty. On “Skinny White Girl,” one of three melancholic lopers that open the album, she mixes up old-time religion with cheap liquor and grimy sex. Appropriately for a song whose title nods toward X’s greatest tune (“White Girl”), Swingle makes like a younger Exene on this one, warbling in her haunted Southern drawl with all the sneer she can muster. While Tim Barnes piles layers of fuzzed-out slide guitar onto the track’s bashing waltz beat, Swingle spins a yarn about a man with “crazy lust” and his revival-tent concubine. “She tries to shake me off at church/So I give her little swig of booze,” she offers from this creepy character’s point of view. “Lay still, little darlin’/You ain’t got much more to lose.”
Yech, of coursebut don’t be afraid. Even though Swingle & Co. give “Skinny White Girl” an atmospherically correct setup, the tunes that precede it aren’t nearly as grim. “Silk Hope Road,” for instance, is a low-octane barnburner, bluesy and woozy and powered mainly by John Bowman’s lazy snare and Barnes’ slightly off-kilter guitar. The snaky harmonica riff Swingle unwinds near the track’s end does sound random and tossed off, but it still provides a nice roadhouse-style finishing touch. And the album’s title track casts Dickinson’s words against a lumbering, minor-key twangfest decked out perfectly with Swingle’s demented fun-house saw solowhich happens to sound just like a theremin.
The band knows how to have a good time, too, occasionally offsetting its dark-ole-opry theatrics with genuine country-pop foot stompers. On “Mach 1,” Swingle throws easy punch lines at an O’Connor-esque character who’s “real pretty with his frosted hair and his jailhouse tattoo.” And on “Drive With the Wind,” Swingle gets all frivolously high and lonesome over the top of Daryl White’s rubbery upright bass and Bowman’s shuffling two-step beat: “Oh baby/You make me crazy/
‘Cause you’re so far away.”
But Trailer Bride specializes in Southern Gothic, and the disc’s best tracks are its most sinister ones. True, on the foreboding “Destiny,” Swingle’s lyrical powers momentarily fail herlacking for inspiration, she dredges up the old philosophical conundrum about a tree falling in the forest. But before the track fades, she recovers nicely, uncorking a visceral image of blood flowing “like lava/Pumping under the skin” that does justice to the song’s menacing guitar riff and its epic title. And “Lightning” finds Swingle confessing her endless lovebut in a flat and sardonic voice that drains every ounce of sentiment from the words. The effect is downright eerie.
Taken together, the songs on Hope Is a Thing With Feathers add up to an edgy portrait of Southern culture on the skids sketched with a voyeur’s eye for telling detail and a writer’s passion for getting it all down. That said, there’s a way in which Trailer Bride’s songs seem to unfold inside scare quotes, a palpable sense of contrivance. But so what if alt-country fans expect their fifth-generation cowpunk to be “authentic”? The rest of us know better. CP