Friday, March 27, 2009

The Weight: The Weight Are Men

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The Weight Are Men sounds completely and hopelessly out of time and out of place. It's the type of generically feeble alt country/Americana hybrid that will send listeners scurrying for the comfort of vintage Uncle Tupelo to help wash the stale countrified taste out of their mouths. Its 10 songs play like a stereotypical laundry list of worn-out clichés and images. Lyin' women, cheatin' women, schemin' women, and the occasional good-hearted woman just waiting at home for her man litter these songs like so many stock characters. Men's hearts are stomped and shat upon and, somewhere I imagine, those men slobber into schooners filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon in shitty juke joints that reek of cigarette smoke and masculine desperation. And of course there's also hard drinkin' - lots of hard drinkin' - and please sir make it cheap whiskey.

A five-piece band fronted by Joseph Plunket on guitar and vocals twangy enough to make your Hee Haw-watching hoosier relatives insanely jealous, The Weight undeniably had ambitious goals with Are Men. The sound is big, bold and full of barroom stomp and holler, with its songs incorporating three-part harmonies, shredding guitar workouts, and macho group vocals. The album is primarily rowdy and boisterous; one can practically hear the shattered chairs and overturned tables as a drunkard is tossed ass-first through a saloon window. The production is suitably punchy, with songs like "Like Me Better," "Closer Than a Friend" and "A Day In the Sun" featuring Plunket's vocals up front in the mix and a heap of guitars, piano, drums, and harmonica thrown in underneath. Most of the album is unabashedly ballsy and macho; the beers in these songs likely come accompanied with a double shot of testosterone.

Perhaps more so than other music genres, alt country and Americana have always required a certain degree of suspension of disbelief; these genres are often rooted in long ago, far away times and places much removed from the people singing about them. When Jay Farrar sang that he was going where there was no Depression, it somehow sounded both relevant and heartfelt, a young kid reinterpreting an American standard and applying it to his contemporary times. What Uncle Tupelo knew is that if a band's going to play music that sounds like it's from a bygone dusty era, you'd damn well better make it convincing. If albums rooted in these genres are judged against such criteria, Are Men is a dismal failure. Its songs and sentiments are simply just not believable, and too often play like little more than a predictable and listless stroll through Americana's back pages. "Sunday Driver" offers played out motifs like a whiskey-swilling lonesome-hearted Georgia boy who's stuck in - where else - that big mean city of New York. The narrator of "A Day In the Sun" begs the operator to put him through to his girl, though no one in the Western world actually relies on phone operators anymore. "Hillbilly Highway" (no shit, that's the song's title) tells the sad-sack tale of a man who vows to return to his mountain town to fetch his beautiful Lilly. Apparently she's a basset hound. And so the album goes, a by-rote walkthrough of music clichés that never gets grounded or goes anywhere.

Certainly part of the album's flaws can be attributed to Plunket's vocal delivery, which can best be described as an extreme country drawl that makes Toby Keith sound like Frank Sinatra. While Plunket's earnestness isn't in doubt, his vocals and subjects are simply too exaggerated to resonate with the listener. Still Are Men's fatal flaw is more basic: we've heard all this before, and we've heard it before in better ways. We've already got Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers, Dave Alvin, Green on Red for those digging a bit deeper, and, if you're really, really desperate, The Bottle Rockets. Are Men offers a procession of booze, broken hearts, and big hooks steeped in Americana; unfortunately, it's doubtful many listeners will want to bother going there.

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