Aged in the cask
Slobberbone never quite fit into any of the usual country-rock categories, and there always was a suspicion that the songs of leader Brent Best encompassed a bit too much for that kind of easy treatment. Barrel Chested confirms it, and makes a compelling case for Best as one of the area's best songwriters.
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Barrel is Slobberbone's second album with Doolittle: The first was a rerelease of Crow Pot Pie, issued independently in 1994 and then picked up by the Austin-based label, which issued it in a slightly altered form. On the new disc, the band is a trio (Best, bassist Brian Lane, and drummer Tony Harper) rather than the somewhat busy quintet that appeared on Crow; new guitarist Jess Bar doesn't appear. The stripped-down presentation brings a great deal of clarity to the music, which reminds one of Son Volt and the Jay Farrar side of Uncle Tupelo, except that Best seems to get out a bit more than Farrar. Both bands share a sense of roots--not copied, not traced, but altered as they pass through the artist's lens. The change from Crow to Barrel is exemplified by "Haze of Drink," a Crow number that didn't make it from the indie release to Doolittle's. The song is essentially unchanged--a head-pounding, hell-raising evocation of the state referred to in the title--but the new version is more polished, better put together, and more direct.
Best's love of big guitar is still intact, as announced by the first ringing thwaps on the guitar strings that kick off the first and title track, and he still loves the fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar. Now, however, they're mood-setting tools--employed in the service of the song--rather than the self-conscious explorations of Crow. Earlier this year, four of the songs on Barrel were released non-commercially in their acoustic form. Those songs ("Engine Joe," "Lame," "Little Drunk Fists," and the title track) showed Best's songwriting to be in good form, and in their finished states on Barrel they prove that he's learning more about how to put a song together.
Best has an everyday voice in the best sense of the word. Whether angrily denouncing a poisonous lover ("I'll be Damned"), wearily contemplating his next relapsed breakdown ("Get Gone Again"), or delivering a folksy, John Prine-like ditty ("Engine Joe," at least until the guitars kick in), his voice has the familiar cadences of an old friend. Barrel Chested isn't country-rock, or insurgent honky-tonk, or anything more than music made by someone who articulates his vision according to certain beloved patterns; in the case of Best, as much AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd (check out the guitar solo on "Barrel Chested") as Buck Owens or the Flatlanders.