Bar Exam

When Brent Best laughs, it sounds like the slide racking on a shotgun. Sounds that way when he coughs, too. Sometimes when he sings. Depends. It's a little worse than usual right now; he and his band, Slobberbone, were on the road in Europe for a few weeks and have only been home a few days. Touring means plenty of late nights and last-calls, cigarettes by the carton, alcohol by the case, colds by the time they get back. Best calls it "the European hacks" because he's had it enough times to name it. Kind of like a pet. So the souvenir T-shirt reads the same as it always does: Slobberbone went to Europe and all they brought home was this stupid cough.

Best is at home in Denton, and he's got a few more days to rest and recoup before it starts again, this time in this country. First with a string of shows with Tennessee's Glossary, later with Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, with a few dates with the Drive-By Truckers sandwiched between. Even though he's still recovering from Slobberbone's last tour, Best is excited about the one coming up, his life for the next two months. Partly, because every show means sharing the stage with musicians he loves and respects. Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood sang on the group's 2000 record, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, and Best frequently sits in with Centro-matic, and kills beers and brain cells with them in various Denton bars. Glossary, Best just likes their music, and that's recommendation enough.

There's more to this tour than that: Best is also eager to get out on the road and show off Slobberbone's latest album, Slippage. And it's a good one, too, a rock record (see: "Springfield, IL." and "Write Me Off") that knows it doesn't always have to ("Sister Beams" and "Back"). It's "classic rock" if you mean "timeless," "modern rock" if you mean "now." Best tells better stories than most--check the regretful "Butchers" who can't "get the bloodstains off their hands" if you want to know what it would sound like if a rock show broke out at a Larry Brown reading--and the band does much more than fill in the gaps behind him.

Slippage hit stores on September 24, but other than a gig in New York and a few low-key warm-up shows at Muddy Waters, the group has spent much of its time since then in Europe. Which was good: In some places overseas, at more than a few of the government-subsidized venues they play, the members of Slobberbone are treated like the rock stars they deserve to be.

"Holland is just off the scale now," Best explains. "Everywhere we go, it's either sold-out or almost sold-out. They're real rabid there and stuff. We're still kinda working on Germany. We've only been a couple of times before, but this was really, really good this time. They're just a different kind of crowd, you know? They're very stoic, and you don't think you're doing anything until you get done, and then they're very..." He pauses, searching for the right word. "Uh, non-stoic. I guess it's kind of a respect thing, but it's kinda weird.

"But, yeah, it was really good," he continues. "It was probably our best run yet. It was fun. But at the same time, you know, no matter how good things are going over there, after a couple of weeks, it makes you miss every crappy club you've ever played at in the States." He laughs. "It's kinda weird, coming from the States, 'cause, you know, you kinda become endeared to crappy rock clubs with bad sound and stuff."

That's probably where the band is at its best, presiding over the sweaty and smoky, holding the crowd in the palm of one hand and a longneck in the other; if Slobberbone is not America's finest bar band, then it's on the short list. No, forget nibbling at the corners of the plate: Best and company (guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper) are, well, the best, legitimate heirs to the Replacements' shit-hits-the-fans sovereignty, literate and, occasionally, obliterated.

You can hear that on Slippage more than any of the group's previous albums, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, 1997's Barrel Chested and 1996's Crow Pot Pie; they were, in some ways, Polaroids that weren't fully developed, especially the first two. The disc is leaner, if not meaner, ditching Everything You Thought's session musicians to focus on how much life the group can wring out of the guitar-drums-bass format by itself. The first thing to go, Best says, was the banjo. And it didn't really have much to do with the songs. Getting rid of the fiddles and steel guitars and horns and all the rest, however, did.