Twisted Americana with more frills than one might expect.
John Aizlewood 2011
There's a strand of American music that lauds ‘authenticity’ above all else. Essentially this ‘authenticity’ involves eschewing such accoutrements of the modern world as keyboards (organ and piano are okay, of course) and remixing. Much as North Mississippi Allstars and Wilco have touched the hem of greatness, the cloak of ‘authenticity’ often disguises mind-numbing dreariness.
Formed in Dallas and based in Austin, Strange Boys exude so much authenticity that not only do they revel in organ, slide guitar and improbably manly vocals, but they loath the new-fangled CD format so much that they cussedly divide Live Music (not an in-concert album: "Live" rhymes with "give" rather than "hive") into side A (recorded in Texas) and side B (recorded in California). You somehow suspect the joys of sampling, downloading and bundles are not for this outfit.
So far, so chin-strokingly barroom – but then things take a turn for the interesting and Live Music becomes a more-frills-than-you-might-imagine, no filler delight. Aside from side B’s Right Before being indebted to The Byrds (the very point at which California met country, of course), Live Music's halves differ subtly. Side A is marginally more rootsy, despite the almost Polyphonic Spree-like harmonies of the terrific Saddest. Side B is marginally more layered, despite the skifflish My Life Beats Me, but as a whole it never sounds disjointed. Frontman Ryan Sambol’s songs are steeped in Americana; but if Americana is a twist on country, Strange Boys are a often sorrowful but always mischievous twist on Americana itself.
The intriguingly titled Over the River and Through the Woulds may have a twangy motif, but its bereft, death-obsessed, self-lacerating lyric – "Love is becoming true in you / I wish it was because of me" – takes it way beyond the porch. Elsewhere, halfway through the even more intriguingly titled You Take Everything for Granite When You’re Stone, Sambol actually stops mumbling and the song bursts into a glorious chorus. There’s even time for Opus, a swirling little instrumental that nods, probably unknowingly, to both Bert Jansch and Johnny Marr.
Marooned with a banal name and having trudged along for a decade with barely a peep of interest, it’s hard not to feel Strange Boys have missed the boat. But Live Music suggests the loss is ours.