Too good to care
Starting at the End
Red Label Records
Here's where Todd Deatherage grows up and moves out of the house, where a young rock-and-roll band makes a record bigger and better than perhaps even the band ever imagined. Nothing the Calways did before this hinted at this record's depth and range; nothing led anyone to believe this would ever be anything more than a band destined to play forever at some joint where music's nothing more than background noise to a drink order. That's why you shouldn't judge a band till it's been together about three years: You can't expect those who don't yet walk to finish the marathon.
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Forever written off as Rhett Miller's shadow--Deatherage and the Old 97's frontman are buddies from way back--by those who didn't know because they didn't care, the Calways stand proudly, defiantly on their own; if the 97's are country for the in-crowd, then the Calways are rock and then some for people who don't like their twang cut with an ironic grin. Forget the 97's comparisons: The only other band in town this perfect and sloppy from start to finish is Slobberbone; both Brent Best and Deatherage seem to make music on a dare. Compared to those other No Impression bands, they're the realest real thing out there--songwriters who learned to win over the guys playing pool in the back, who make music because it's the only thing they know how to do. Like Deatherage aches at the beginning of Starting at the End: "I hold this guitar/Every night I wanna be a big star...Oh, why can't I be holding you instead of this damned guitar?" Sometimes you got no choice.
"This Damn Guitar," which opens the record, breaks a sweat even when standing still as Deatherage bemoans the life of the musician who sacrifices life and love to eke out a meager living on the road. The tale's familiar, the words even more so ("Hope I make it out alive"), but the delivery's so sincere, the music so abstruse and effortlessly dramatic, you're swept up in the moment. Then comes "Rock 'n' Roll Queen"--with its Allman Brothers guitar, Britpop vocals, and new-wave keyboards--and suddenly it's the other side of the same coin.
"Dream Girl" comes later, sounding like a Matthew Sweet outtake, and "Could've Been the Best" leaves it hanging with Skynyrd echoes. But the no-doubt-about-it highlight comes smack in the middle with "Ain't Missing You," which is country like the Replacements circa Hootenanny or Green on Red were country--meaning the components are all there (drummer Kyle Goolsby cuts a mean shuffle, Mike Smith bangs away at the piano, and, hey, is that a banjo or a guitar?), but they're so jumbled they barely resemble the prototype. And Deatherage gets in the best line of the bunch: "Time's been good to me," he half sings and half groans, offering the ultimate goodbye to a woman he's all but begging to come back. Rarely does feeling this bad sound this damned good.