#1 Pleasure Horse
There are more than a couple bands in the Twin Cities who claim Gram Parson’s “cosmic American music” as inspiration, but few if any appropriate the very best of its stylistic medley as well as Pleasure Horse, whose self-titled debut has been must anticipated around your friendly neighborhood record shop. The band slowly evolved over its several years, staying focused on multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist Tim Evanson, who we first met as a member of the Flying Dorito Brothers. They were a Parsons cover band with a short-lived run much loved by many, and Evanson’s take on “One Hundred Years from Now” stuck to our ribs.
With lead guitarist Ben Mahowald, he’s kept the band going and growing. Pleasure Horse offers just a little of just about everything you’ve ever loved about country music over ten tracks: beer-soaked heartbreak and twang, and a little Tex-Mex and a little rock and roll. There’s a fuzz guitar on “Reasons” which recalls Grady Martin’s solo on a 1961 Marty Robbins single, and an organ on “News Radio” which sounds like it was borrowed from the first Lambchop album. Either song is an excellent example of the band’s innovative arrangements, which are so consistently inventive its impossible to pick a favorite moment on this album.
The album’s production doesn’t do its ambitions justice, as is evident from the rollicking opener “Company Spade,” which we really want to burst out of our speakers with the energy we know is in there, and sometimes the drums get lost. The band balances its rhythm section against pedal steel, brass, organ and fiddle, but feels boxed in and restrained. The songs are just so damn good it doesn’t matter. Some are solidly pastoral and narrative, like “Gracie” and “Oahe,” and others just fantastically catchy. Pleasure Horse hits that sweet spot on every song on this album.
#2 The Gated Community
We Can Do Anything opens with a rich, bluegrass rendition of the Youngblood’s harrowing “Darkness, Darkness” (the only cover on the disc), but the ensuing eleven tracks aren’t as driven towards a cynical worldview as their first disc (heard here), which had a series of Dead Kennedys-as-a-bluegrass band moments. Hints of the way the political world creeps into daily life, whether welcome or not, still appear. In “Non (A French Song)” a laid-off factory worker laments malaise with a little more grace than the stumpjumpers on Charlie Parr’s latest (but not much), and the slow burning closer, “This World,” presents an open-eyed optimism in response to the oppressive pressures in the Youngbloods anthem which opened the album by embracing the here and now.
This doesn’t suggest Sumanth Gopinath’s lyrics are any less dense or intense, just that their focus has shifted in a new direction. Its almost as if he’s channeled John Hartford’s alternating sense of humor and stark sentimentalism and the ability to shift between the two with ease. The arrangements suit this well, especially in the balance between bluegrass roots and good old fashioned Nashville country — All the twang’s in all the right places. Remarkably, they get in all the requirements for “the perfect country and western song” as per David Allen Coe (though not in a single verse). A lovely duet, “Georgia,” is the album’s highlight, just enough George and Tammy to hit the heartstrings, and lushly produced. “I Wanna Get Drunk Tonight” is a hilariously fun song which would have fit perfectly in our post last week about bar fightin’ songs, and “Non (A French Song)” is good outlaw country fun. You know, it was Charlie Daniels who played the fiddle on that Youngbloods song.