In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “This is straight up country music balladry and heartbreak.”
I’m not sure when the genre of Alt-Country became a thing, but I know I first became aware of it in around the turn of the millennium, thanks to Ryan Adams. He was an alternative radio favourite and every time I would hear one of his solo songs on the wireless, the jock would feel compelled to mention his old band, Whiskeytown. I always liked Ryan Adams singles when I heard them, but never felt compelled to seek out entire albums until the last year or so. And even then, my consumption has been casual at best. But through bands and artists like Wilco, Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell, my appreciation for country, alt and traditional, has exploded over the last few years, which is why now felt like the perfect time to finally get into some Whiskeytown, with Strangers Almanac.
There’s nothing alt about the country of album opener Inn Town. This is straight up country music balladry and heartbreak. Acoustic guitars, a mournful fiddle and vocal harmonies full of road worn sadness, it’s a great start, that leads into the perfectly juxtaposed up beat country optimism of the amazingly titled Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight.
The energy uplift continues with the country rock of Yesterday’s News. Its crunching, riffing guitars and soaring organ are the perfect fit for inspirational inflection ironically given to almost defeatist lyrics like “I can’t stand to be under your wing. I can’t fly or sink or swim, it’s a lot like fallin’ down.”
Country twang meets soul horns on Everything I Do, and it’s a combination that works amazingly well. While Strangers Almanac had been in no way simplistic before this point, Whiskeytown get a little more ambitious and lush with the production and sound of Turn Around. It’s haunting and deeply dark and layered in a way that stands out from the more straight forward, “live” sound of the rest of the record.
As the pedal steel sadness of Dancing With the Women at the Bar played out, I had to wonder of the concept of “alt country” was just an ingenious marketing ploy to get younger, “cool” kids to listen to a band like Whiskeytown. Because like so much of Strangers Almanac, there’s no need for the “alt” qualifier. It’s just great country music and pretty traditional in its use of the genre’s signature sounds.
But those signature sounds are completely abandoned for the 90s, alt rock of Waiting to Derail. This could be a Jimmy Eat World song, or Teenage Fanclub. It’s so different from the rest of the album, but stuck out in a great way that’s till seemed like it belongs, not like an anomaly.
With a more western sound than country, closing track Not Home Anymore almost sounds like it could be used in an episode of Deadwood. And so ends my 51 minutes and 13 track introduction to Whiskeytown. I stand by my earlier comment that the “alt country” tag seems more manufactured than natural. But I’m cool with that. Whiskeytown wrote really cool country music, and if the 90s equivalent of hipsters needed and “alt” prefix to make it OK for them to listen of country music, then anything that got this band more noticed is fine by me.