Bloodshot Records Capsule Reviews

As with the past couple years, I like to take some time in January to review the albums I bought at Bloodshot Records’ holiday sale. (As of today, the sale is still going on, though their site doesn’t say how long it will last.)

I don’t know if I will keep doing this, though. I don’t want to wait until January to review the brand new albums (I went ahead and reviewed Justin Townes Earle’s latest right away, for example), and I may have reached my limit for older items from the Bloodshot catalog. This time, I found myself scrolling through the list of sale CDs, asking myself if I really needed another Wayne Hancock or Waco Brothers album. So I don’t know what I’ll decide next time.

Great Chicago Fire cover

Waco Brothers & Paul Burch – Great Chicago Fire

Waco Brothers & Paul Burch – Great Chicago Fire

The easiest criticism of Bloodshot is that is that they are trying to approximate a sound without the depth. Great Chicago Fire, the new collaboration between two label stalwarts, supports this. The Waco Brothers were pioneers of modern-day country-rock, and Paul Burch is best known for his faithful turn-of-the-past-century sound, but they actually merge fairly well. The result sounds like the Waco Brothers half the time, with Burch fitting in well among the multiple vocalists they’ve used, and like a toned-down album for middle-aged rockers the other half. But while they are skilled artists, none of the songs seem to be about anything. After my third listen, I realized I couldn’t remember what had happened in any single track. Since then, I’ve paid more attention, and found them to be consistently decent songs in the tradition of Waco B-sides. But nothing here really carries the album.

Great Chicago Fire is strongest on its first few tracks, with a pure Waco sound. Burch adds an introspective feel throughout, which gives the album good variety without the misfires that usually come along with Waco experiments. Through it all, they toss off several interesting lines. (“A Dutch anarchist in Amsterdam saved my life tonight. Threw me in a room full of thirsty women till I came out with a wife.”) However, none of it feels like it speaks to personal experience or our nature as people, which is what country (even country-rock) excels at. Instead, this feels like a good, but slight, effort. It’s nice to see the Wacos working together again, and interesting to learn about Burch’s range. Now hopefully they can all rediscover the muse that made their best songs work.

Grade: C+

Mutt cover

Cory Branan – Mutt

Cory Branan: Mutt

Cory Branan is the opposite sort of Bloodshot artist: A new talent discovered by the label, but likely to be on Merge or New West within a couple years. A spare, folksy storyteller with a smoky voice, Branan’s album Mutt comes with a sticker on the CD case explicitly comparing him to John Prine, and that isn’t far off.

He needs this time in a smaller label to strengthen his art, though. Branan’s delivery is spot-on, with a confident delivery and music that can go stripped-down or electric as the song requires. His lyrics are a little less mature, with an eagerness to point out every last ounce of meaning around him, instead of just letting life happen and having the meaning flow out of it. “Survivor Blues” (which appears twice on the album) is a perfect example: It opens with a meeting between a woman who puts out a match with her tear and a man whose knuckle tattoos can’t be read beneath the scars, and before long there’s a stolen car and flight out of state. A better example of Branan’s potential is found in “Bad Man”, which limits itself to just a few clever turns of phrase and lets his singing convey the dark charisma of an unhealthy relationship.

Branan is likely to go places. If so, it will be because he improved on his songwriting after Mutt. However, a few of these tracks will still show up on that greatest hits release far in the future.

Grade: B-

Poor Little Knitter On The Road cover

Various Artists – Poor Little Knitter On The Road

Various Artists: Poor Little Knitter On The Road

The Knitters’ 1985 debut Poor Little Critter On the Road didn’t set the world on fire, but it had a Velvet Underground-type impact: A few people bought the album, and every one of them started their own alt-country band. It helped that The Knitters were a punk rock side project (mainly from members of X), attracting a new audience to well-done, unironic country. In fact, this release was so influential that in the early days of Bloodshot Records, the label released a track-by-track remake named Poor Little Knitter On The Road.

This was a great idea at the time, with such an important album out of print. Besides, Critter’s multiple vocalists and reliance on traditional songs made it feel like it may as well have been a compilation album. So even a few years ago, this Bloodshot version would be easy to recommend. But today, thanks to the magic of iTunes and Amazon MP3, the Knitters’ original is no longer hard to find. That makes this new one a lot less essential.

Fortunately, the songs are still good. The tribute album is surprisingly close to the original, with only a few songs making notable changes (such as The Sadies’ “Walkin’ Cane” being half the length of the original, or Devil In A Woodpile playing with the tempo of “Rock Island Line”). For the most part, it’s difficult to choose which versions of the songs are better. When one is clearly superior, though, it’s usually the Bloodshot version – I think 99 Tales hits the emotions of “Baby Out of Jail” better than The Knitters did, and Kelly Hogan is predictably great on the mournful ballad “Someone Like You”. Also, The Knitters themselves showed up to add a new song to the Bloodshot release.

The songs don’t stand out as much in today’s musical culture, but it’s still a good album. If you were choosing between Poor Little Critter and Poor Little Knitter, you wouldn’t go wrong either way. I give the edge to the original just due to its status and influence, but the Bloodshot version is arguably improved. It’s your choice, really.

Grade: B-

South Mouth cover

Robbie Fulks – South Mouth

Robbie Fulks: South Mouth

Robbie Fulks is an excellent country songwriter in a culture that values country only as a skin-deep checklist. His output is mixed, but South Mouth is one of the essential albums. Almost every track feels like a classic, with creative approaches to the old stories of heartbreak, cheating, and murder. “Busy Not Crying” is a clever explanation of the things he does to avoid thinking about a recent break-up, and “Cold Statesville Ground” has a chilling coda about a newborn fated to become a killer. Fulks would write more varied music later in his career, but this is the pure country classic from his catalog.

He respects tradition in most songs, but a couple tear at the roots of country. “I Told Her Lies” turns a standard moral tale into a celebration of sin, and “Fuck This Town” is still his most famous song. Despite that, “Fuck This Town” hasn’t aged well. It was original in 1997, but much better Nashville kiss-offs have been written since then. Fulks doesn’t actually offer a good reason for his hatred of Nashville. Most people interpret it as a complaint about the city’s soulless corporate approach, but according to the song, he’s just angry that he failed when he tried to sell out himself. The only specific complaint is that their music is for “feminists” and “faggots”, a sentiment that wouldn’t go over well in the underground country scene today. Fulks has always danced nimbly between every persona from chauvinist asshole to thoughtful saint, but if South Mouth has a flaw, it’s that he leans a bit too much towards the former, especially on the most memorable songs.

Still, when taken song-by-song, it’s hard to find fault with South Mouth. It’s mainly somber and faithful to the music Fulks grew up with, which may disappoint the people hoping for more like “Fuck This Town”. However, by effortlessly succeeding at a sound that mainstream artists always manage to mess up, the rest of this album manages to make a much better case against Nashville than that one song could.

Grade: B+

No One Got Hurt cover

Various Artists – No One Got Hurt

Various Artists: No One Got Hurt

Bloodshot has a lot of compilations, but few seem as unnecessary as No One Got Hurt. Recorded at the label’s fifteenth birthday celebration, it has a selection of live songs from their artists. Like all their collections, it has good and bad songs, but this one has much less variety than normal. It only features the artists that they could have at a concert, which ties them to a specific budget and point in time. Strangely, there are very few new artists here, either. That arguably makes it feel more timeless and appropriate to an anniversary. (Or maybe they just focused on the artists who would give a good rock concert, since this is much more raucous than the average Bloodshot album.)

The recording quality is merely ok, with almost every song that I already know sounding less interesting than the originals. Even Scott Biram, who sounds great on just about every live YouTube video you can find, is a little faded here. The Waco Brothers are the only ones who really sound like they should. And while the announcer only shows up a few times, he is annoying enough to cast a pall over the experience in general.

Bloodshot put out very good compilations to celebrate their fifth and tenth anniversaries. Those had the advantage of using studio recordings, though. This fifteenth anniversary concert sounds like it was fun to attend, but it doesn’t make the case that it should for the breadth or talent of their roster.

Grade: C

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