Ter­rell’s Tune-Up

Steve Ter­rell cel­e­brates two new re­leases from The Waco Brothers

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It’s been so long since The Waco Brothers re­leased an al­bum of new ma­te­rial I was be­gin­ning to won­der whether the stan­dard-bear­ers of Blood­shot Records’ “in­sur­gent coun­try” were go­ing the way of the Branch Da­vid­i­ans — with­out the spec­tac­u­lar fi­nale. Af­ter all, since 2005’s Free­dom and Weep, the only al­bums the group has re­leased are a live record ( Waco Ex­press: Live & Kickin’ at Schuba’s Tav­ern, Chicago) in 2008 and a col­lab­o­ra­tion with al­ter­na­tive coun­try singer Paul Burch ( The Great

Chicago Fire) in 2012. But now t he good folks at Blood­shot have given us a dou­ble shot of Wa­co­ma­nia. In De­cem­ber came a lim­ited-edi­tion live al­bum called Cabaret Show­time, and set for re­lease later this month is Go­ing Down in His­tory, that long- awaited al­bum of all-new ma­te­rial.

For the unini­ti­ated, The Waco Brothers came to be in the early ’ 90s, form­ing in Chicago, where Jon Lang­ford of The Mekons had set­tled. Most of his cur­rent band­mates — in­clud­ing fel­low Brits Tracy Dear and Alan “Sprock­ets” Doughty plus Wis­con­sin na­tive Dean Sch­labowske (aka Deano Waco) — have been in t he Waco Brothers since the be­gin­ning. At first they were ba­si­cally a Lang­ford side pro­ject, gig­ging in Chicago and cov­er­ing lots of clas­sic coun­try songs (“for free beer,” or so the leg­end goes).

Lang­ford’s love for coun­try mu­sic is sin­cere. As a Mekon, he helped fa­cil­i­tate the shot­gun wed­ding of punk rock and coun­try mu­sic with al­bums such as Fear and Whiskey and Honky Tonkin’, back in the 1980s. With The Wa­cos, he rocked the coun­try far harder than The Mekons ever did while some­how re­main­ing truer to the source ma­te­rial. And then Lang­ford, Sch­labowske, and t he oth­ers started writ­ing all th­ese great songs es­pe­cially for The Waco Brothers. (Their orig­i­nal tunes are of­fi­cially cred­ited to the band, so it’s hard to de­ter­mine who ac­tu­ally wrote what.) And when Chicago’s Blood­shot Records was born in 1994, The Wa­cos were a nat­u­ral match. They right­fully re­main the la­bel’s f lag­ship band. The first thing I no­ticed about Go­ing Down in

His­tory is that the band is con­tin­u­ing the path of its last few stu­dio al­bums, jet­ti­son­ing many of its overt coun­try touches. Steel gui­tarist Mark Du­rante has been gone for years now (and that’s a loss). And to be hon­est, un­like their ear­li­est al­bums like — To the

Last Dead Cow­boy and, es­pe­cially, Cow­boy in Flames, which whomped me over the head right off the bat, — it took a few lis­tens for the new one to grow on me. But grow it did. The raw, mus­cu­lar-but-melodic, roots-in­formed rock in the end is just hard to re­sist.

The open­ing cut, “DIYBYOB,” sung by Sch­labowske, con­tains a clever twist on an old sea dog adage: “Sailors take warn­ing, red eyes in the morn­ing/ You can’t kill us, we’re al­ready dead.” There’s a vague ref­er­ence to na­tional pol­i­tics, which Deano in­stantly backs away from (“Move along, there’s noth­ing here to see”), while the re­frain seems to speak of a failed re­la­tion­ship (“DIYBYOB, there’s noth­ing left ’tween you and me”). But by the last verse of the song, the singer proudly clings to the punk-rock ethos that still pro­pels him: “On the day af­ter the mu­sic died/ Can’t take all the credit, but we tried/ You can’t cut the power, you can’t turn out the lights/ We’ll keep the party goin’ through the night.”

“We Know It” starts off with some fore­bod­ing, bluesy noodling but quickly turns into a hard­charg­ing, al­most para­noid rant by Lang­ford: “We know it when we see it/ We know it when it calls/ We know it can’t be good for us/ We know we want it all.” One of the chief de­lights by Lang­ford here is “Build­ing Our Own Prison,” which takes a souped-up Bo Did­dley beat and makes it more chaotic, while Lang­ford sings about “big boxes” ring­ing the town, do­nat­ing his shop­ping list to sci­ence, and nail­ing “my body to the tem­ple door.” The Wa­cos do two cover songs on Go­ing Down in

His­tory. One is The Small Faces’ “All or Noth­ing,” which sounds as close to a soul bal­lad as you’re ever likely to hear from the band. (They ded­i­cate t his to Faces’ key­board man Ian McLa­gan, a friend of the band, who died in 2014.) And they end the al­bum with a rock­ing ver­sion of Jon Dee Gra­ham’s “The Or­phan’s Song.” At the end of the song they play­fully al­ter the re­frain, turn­ing “I will be your brother for the night” into “I’ll be your Waco Brother for tonight.” Sounds like a deal.

As for Cabaret Show­time, this is a lighter-hearted af­fair on which The Wa­cos romp through some of the great coun­try tunes that in­spired the group all those years ago: Buck Owens’ “Tiger by t he Tail,” Johnny Cash’s “Fol­som Prison Blues” and “Wanted Man” (which was ac­tu­ally writ­ten by Bob Dy­lan), and Gram Par­sons’ “Ooh Las Ve­gas” are all here. There’s even a coun­try ver­sion of blues­man Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (which is called “You Got Me Run­ning” here).

My per­sonal fa­vorite on this al­bum is a fairly ob­scure Ge­orge Jones song, “Girl at the End of the Bar.” Lang­ford prac­ti­cally spits the lyrics (“She had so many hard knocks/ She don’t play the juke­box/ She’s lived all those sad songs first­hand”) just be­fore he plays prob­a­bly the pret­ti­est gui­tar so­los I’ve ever heard him play. But it’s not all hill­billy hi­jinks on

Cabaret. There are not one but two Waco-ized T. Rex cov­ers (“Deb­ora” and a garagey “20th Cen­tury Boy”). And — be­lieve it or not — The Waco Brothers play Pink Floyd! It’s an in­stru­men­tal called “In­ter­stel­lar Over­drive,” which ap­peared on Floyd’s 1967 de­but The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

So no, this al­bum isn’t for coun­try purists. But purists have never been The Wa­cos’ top de­mo­graphic tar­get. Pre- or­der Go­ing Down in His­tory and buy

Cabaret Show­time at www.blood­shotrecords.com.

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