September 13, 2008
Jason Boland and the Stragglers are unaware of it, but we’ve spent a lot of quality car time together over the years. We’ve sung some amazing duets, ditched a few speeding tickets and generally had a fantastic time. So, of course, as soon as I received their latest album, Comal County Blue, I headed straight for the car and hit the highway. (Honestly, this review only took me this long to write, because I didn’t want to take the CD out of my car stereo. But, better late than never…)
The first song on the album sets the tone of the album musically, if not lyrically. “Sons and Daughters of Dixie” is a gentle rocker with a definite groove and well-placed instrumental solos. The significance of the song’s lyrics, however, only reveals itself upon repeated listens. This is surprising given that Boland’s lyrics rebuking the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina are anything but subtle: “The one thing I can’t stomach/Is how the hill watched it bleed/You bet they’d sang a different tune if a flood had hit D.C.” While the song ultimately speaks to the determination and strength of the people affected by Katrina, the impact of the song would have been greatly enhanced by a vocal and arrangement to match the biting lyrics.
The album’s sweet spot, which comes three songs in, is easily the title track, “Comal County Blue.” As soon as I heard it, I leaned over in my car and pushed repeat. Then I contemplated swinging a right and taking Interstate 8 due east. Within 15 minutes, I could have been driving through one of the great deserts of the southwest and headed towards Texas. The chugging pace and soaring fiddle of the song—which recounts a contemplative trip (either figuratively or literally) from the singer’s residence (“I have a harmless habit of being fine wherever I am”) up north to Austin (where he “paid a due”), visiting old memories and friends along the way—nearly demanded it. It comes as no surprise that this song, which manages to be universal at the same time it speaks to specific people and places, currently sits atop of the Texas Music Chart.
The remainder of the album largely sticks to derivations of two themes—love and alcohol—while maintaining road-trip ready hooks and melodies. As the first song instructed, however, the first listen isn’t always revealing. With “No Reason Being Late,” Boland, whose troubles with alcohol are well known to his fans, continues his propensity for disguising a sobering subject with a bouncy, if not downright cheerful, arrangement. Only after peeling away the music, does the song reveal a man who’s nearly ready to give up the fight against his personal demons: “One more dance with the devil/Will surely seal my fate/I don’t know where I’m going/I see no reason in being late.” The song, which benefits from subtle mandolin picking, also contains the most brilliant verse on the album:
These mirror talks are getting old
A ray of light was a bullet hole
And I’m jealous of a kiss
I watch my idle hands
Rock steady in sinking sand
Did I really sober up for this
The album addresses the affects of alcohol in all its variations—both the highs and the lows. Boland does it most obviously, but least effectively, with “Bottle By My Bed,” a song that compares a man’s empty life with the empty bottle by his bed; while “The Party’s Not Over,” a two-steppin’ party anthem complete with steel and fiddle solos and a Robert Earl Keen guest appearance, takes the opposite approach. The song dismisses the after affects of a long night of drinking by saying: “Tomorrow morning may hurt like hell/but it’s going to be worth it.”
The best alcohol-drenched song on the album is “God is Mad at Me.” There’s something beguiling about the honesty and simplicity of the hook: “I feel like God is mad at me, because he thinks I worship you.” To make the connection, Boland (and co-writer Jackson Taylor) cleverly invoke Exodus 20:3 (“Thou shalt not have strange gods before me”). Again, the song maintains an easy pace and tone, despite containing heart-wrenching lyrics. There’s truly nothing simple or easy about the plea: “Lord I’m hating/What I’ve become/Now I can’t breathe/There’s no one I can call/So if you’d kindly let me up/I believe I’m done.”
When dealing with songs about love, Boland is not as sure-footed as a songwriter, but his songs are no less entertaining. “If It Were Up To Me” touches on the difficulties of relationships, while in “May Not Be Love” a couple settles for less than love. With “Alright,” a song previously recorded by Cross Canadian Ragweed, I’m not sure when or where men got the idea that women liked being compared to “a pitch that I can’t hit” or “a joke that I don’t get,” but I’ll, um, assume it’s meant as a compliment.
Overall, Comal County Blue will probably be more satisfying than anything coming out of Nashville this year. One can easily see a number of its songs being cherry-picked by the best artists in Nashville, but that would truly be a shame. Boland’s vocals are solid and the production by Lloyd Maines is utterly refreshing. If somewhere along the way you forgot what a fiddle, dobro, steel, mandolin and banjo sound like, give this a listen, you won’t regret it. (And now that this album has been uploaded onto my iTunes, it’s going back in my car.)