Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue

Jason Boland & The Stragglers
Comal County Blue

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.)

Be Sociable, Share!

14 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

14 Responses to Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue

  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Great and fun review! I agree that this is one of my favorite CDs of the year so far, which is odd since it’s kind of outside the mainstream genre to which I typically stick. Great production, great songs and Boland’s vocals are worth noting as well.

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I forgot to say that the title track and the first track are my favorites from the album right now.

  3. Nice review, Lynn, but I gotta disagree with a few things. You correctly state that “Sons and Daughters of Dixe” speaks to the determination and strength of the people affected by Katrina. It’s that hope and perseverance that the production targets and not the biting lyrics, so production enhancing the criticism wouldn’t have serviced the song as well. Also, the allusion to Reconstruction is well-hidden, but it seems to be a little too color blind.

    I don’t think “Bottle By Me Bed” is the least effective, but rather one of the stronger tracks for it’s simplicity, openness, and honesty. “God Is Mad At Me” is brilliant for it’s ability to work in the context of nearly any vice.

    As for “Alright,” it was cut by CCR in 1998–a year before Paisley’s first album and 8 years before “She’s Everything.” It might’ve been a little hard to listen to too much Paisley back then.

    Like I mentioned before, the weakness of the album is that some of the songs are too esoteric to make much sense, “Down Here On Earth” being one. Boland is an intelligent writer and I’m sure it’d make sense if he explained it, but a song should be able to stand on its own.

  4. Lynn DouglasNo Gravatar

    Brady, I stand corrected on “Alright.” Maybe Brad had been listening to a little too much CCR (I don’t know them well). ;) (I made that correction so as not to confuse others.)

    I see your point with “Dixie,” but the song doesn’t pull any punches with its lyrics. They made the choice not to focus on it, and that’s a perfectly fine choice (it’s still an enjoyable song), I just wouldn’t have minded the punches being thrown a little harder. I recognize that maybe they were trying to walk a fine line – throwing punches, but not making them too obvious, so as to not offend some fans, but who knows.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about “Bottle By My Bed.” “God Is Mad At Me” is brilliant for the reason you stated. In the context of this album, I couldn’t help but feel like it referred to alcohol, but people can certainly make it their own.

    The thing I like about Boland, is that even when he’s being esoteric, the casual listener can still listen to the album and not feel like anything’s remiss.

  5. I doubt Boland was actively trying not to offend fans, especially considering some of the commentary on the rest of the album.

    What don’t you think works about “Bottle By My Bed?”

    The thing I like about Boland, is that even when he’s being esoteric, the casual listener can still listen to the album and not feel like anything’s remiss.

    Couldn’t the same excuse be said for so much of what’s played on radio. I think if we’re going to complain about what’s on radio, we need to hold everyone to the same standards.

  6. Lynn DouglasNo Gravatar

    “Bottle By My Bed” is by no means a bad song, it’s just not, IMO, the best one – lyrically -about the subject on the album. Since it is about a personal struggle, I hate to criticize it, but I just feel like the lyrics are a little too obvious. They make the obvious connection. He’s proven himself a clever songwriter; this just wasn’t one of my favorites.

    I agree that we should hold radio to a higher standard. However, with Boland, I merely meant that I can enjoy a song on his album even if I don’t get the inside joke, because his writing, for the most part, doesn’t close off the listener from interpreting it in his/her own way.

    I hope we’re taking this as a friendly debate…

  7. This review Lynn, and the comments made me think this is an album I should like, and at least, like to hear.

    I was pleased to find it on emusic.com
    and spent 12 of the remaining 26 downloads I have for this month on it.

    After a first listen I definitely want to listen again because there seems to be a lot to get out of all of these tracks.

    “May Not Be Love” is the song that grabs me most immediately. a Really nice complementary female sounding backing vocal from, I guess, one of the Stragglers.

    There does seem to be quite a lot of “God bothering” going on throughout the lyrics in a number of the songs, but I can get over that with this album.

    I have not heard any of Boland’s earlier albums.

    The only other one on emusic.com is “Live at Billy Bob’s” so I might try a sample of that.

  8. No, it’s not friendly, this is serious stuff! Heh, I’m kdding. Of course it’s friendly. If we’re going to review music, I think we need to be open to challenges and be able to validate whatever opinions we express. I don’t see a better way to do that than to discuss the songs.

    I’d agree that the song would be clunky or obvious if it merely drew the line at comparing his life to the empty bottle, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s more to the story and he reveals that when he extends the invitation to hear the rest of it. It’s an introduction of sorts and in the regard, it works well.

    Jim O, the female harmony on “May Not Be Love” is Jessica Murray. I don’t know anything about her, but she’s not one of The Stragglers. I dig The Bourbon Legend and Pear Snaps if you’re interested in checking out some of his other stuff. What exactly is wrong with “God bothering,” as you put it, on the album?

  9. I will try to check out some of those other titles Brady.

    Nothing at all wrong with invoking God in song lyrics at all. It just does nothing for me in most instances.

    On this album though how can I best put it:
    It doesn’t spoil my overall appreciation.

  10. Lynn DouglasNo Gravatar

    Brady, I agree. The end of the song saves it entirely.

    I did some research on Jessica Murray when I was listening to the album. There wasn’t a lot out there, but she’s a female singer living in Texas who has previously worked with Lloyd Maines (the producer here), and many of the artists in that scene, including Pat Green and Cory Morrow.

  11. Hey guys, I thought maybe I could clear up a couple things for you y’all. If you’ve been to any of our shows leading up to our break, you may have heard us play If It Were Up To Me. We started throwing it in the set list to test the waters, it’s a pretty good boogie-woogie tune that seems to get people moving. After a few weeks of getting comfortable with it, Jason began to simply introduce it as ” a song about weed”. It’s obviously a little deeper than that, but there are the blatant references ” look into gettin’ stoned”, and the more obscure “going round and round man this should be a crime” (think of a joint circle, c’mon you’ve been there). I think the song is a representation of Boland’s non-confrontational manner about life, the guy hates it when people can’t get along, and he’s not really one for conflict over trite issues. As for Jessica Murray, she’s Seth James’ wife, he’s the fairly well known badass blues guitarist from Texas in the vein of Stevie Ray. She used to tour as a backing vocalist for Cory Morrow back in the day, and has been on several of our peers’ albums. I think she’s a busy mother these days which explains why she would have more or less dropped out of the scene. A brilliant singer, nonetheless. So anyhow, I hope I’ve helped and we appreciate all of your interest in this album, I feel its the culmination of our 10 years as a band. In other words, I think it’s the best representation of what we do as a band, and who Jason is as a person. Thanks for your time..

    brad

  12. I had thought Boland hadn’t written Comal County Blues. But it seems I’m wrong!
    This song will go down as one of the best out of Texas in my option. Just great work getting the words and music together with great vocals to send this song with a Gold Star, as a perfect Texas County Song. BTW…I’m far from just turning on the CD and hearing what someone has for me to hear. Yes, I’m not in the music business anymore. But, a lot of the longtime stars of Texas Music know who I am. I had my time under the lights cut short from medical reasons way to many long years ago. I hung around for quite a while in other non stage positions, but moved on finaly
    . I still have friends that I’ve followed for over 40 years. Sadly some have had to move on to that great stage in the sky. I miss so many of my old friends, but so happy to see Texans keep presenting to the world how special and proud and great Texas music can be to anyone with a heart to see and feel a new song reach inside ones soul with love.

    Cliff Dunn

  13. Chris RussellNo Gravatar

    I totally disagree with having a enhanced vocal and different arrangement to match the lyrics to Sons and daughters of dixie.The song is it’s own and so is the man that wrote it.Thats one thing I disagree with is changing the sound of a great song to match what everyone wants to hear.If you don’t like the arrangement then don’t listen to it, or listen and like the song the way it was wrote and have respect for Jason boland since that’s his style, which is natural and his own.

    Chris
    p.s.
    And I also totally agree with Brad Rice, and plus he plays in the band so I would listen.

  14. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Chris,
    We invite friendly debate and even firm disagreement here, but your unprovoked combative tone is quite puzzling, especially considering Lynn’s over all very positive review of this album. She was very respectful to him.