Jason & the Scorchers — Halcyon Times. Out 2/23, self-released.
The genre descriptor “cowpunk” doesn’t get used as much now as it used to, I don’t think, which it is a shame only because it’s a great descriptor for a very specific sound that I’m particularly fond of — cowpunk. Country-punk. Outlaw country, as Bloodshot Records would have it. The cross section of the punk aesthetic and the Americana tradition. Or just plain old rock with a twang, if that’s what you want to call it, whatever. I genuinely believe that, whether or not they claim Jason Ringenberg as an influence, there are a lot of bands today (and in the past, up to and including my beloved will-they-won’t-they-break-up-kings Slobberbone and spiritual on-again-off-again brothers I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House1) that wouldn’t exist the way they do if J&tS hadn’t come along first. (And, also, come on: I just like the word “cowpunk”. COWPUNK!)
Because Jason & the Scorchers are the pioneers of that sound, all the way back to their first 45″ and their 1983 EP Fervor. The place where punk rock and Nashville country meet, that’s Jason Ringenberg and his band. Halcyon Times is their first release since 2002’s b-sides and rarities collection, Wildfires & Misfires, and to be honest, I thought that J&tS were going to be one of those bands where I would just have to content myself with their back catalog and a lingering sadness that I never caught them live before they stopped existing.
Luckily, they aren’t, and even more luckily, their new album is really nicely solid, for a band that hasn’t put out new studio material in at least ten years and who’ve been broken up, for all intents and purposes, for five. If someone had played this album for me blind, I’d have asked who it was, and if it was a Nashville debut — it sounds that young, and that fresh, except it’s all backed by a musicianship that can’t be faked. It isn’t a home run, for sure, but any band that’s been doing this for 30 years and took some time off to write children’s songs and … whatever the rest of the Scorchers were doing while Jason was being Farmer Jason is allowed a few clunkers. “Mother of Greed” sticks a bizarre vintage-Billy-Bragg-sounding track in the midst of a stretch of screaming-guitar-wailers — it’s a good track, it just doesn’t work for me in that spot — and there’s something about “Land of the Free” that just flops for me, and I can’t put my finger on what. I think it might come over as a little too earnestly jingoistic without the slice of irony I expect from Jason or, say, Jon Langford and the songwriters behind the Waco Brothers.
Basically, this album is a kinder, gentler Jason & the Scorchers without losing any of their signature sounds — the screaming chorus of “Better Than This” doesn’t pack the ear-splitting punch it might have 25 years ago, and “When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie To Me)” and “Golden Days” are as close to straight up country tracks as the band’s ever done (both those tracks work incredible well, for what it’s worth), but they’re great songs. The songwriting, even in the songs that fall flat for me, is tight and if it’s not revolutionary, well, I don’t know that Jason Ringenberg has never been a revolutionary songwriter — just a consistently great one, who knew how to pair his songs with a sound that was unlike anything people had heard before. And the album closes with “We’ve Got It Goin’ On”, which, yes, Jason & the Scorchers undeniably still do, 30 years later, and if there’s a track on the disc that sounds exactly like I expect J&tS to sound, it’s that one, and that track is perfect.
1: back in december, someone told me that SOB was getting back together to make a new album this year, and i really hope so. i would also like official confirmation or denial of the rumored new slobberbone record and subsequent tour, pls, because i am wicked into brent best’s cowpunk-crazy.