The Means and the Machine (Diamond D)
RIYL: Whiskeytown, Lucero, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers
In the grand tradition of Southern rock bands — and please note the distinction from Southern-rock bands a la Skynyrd et al — American Gun possesses a hootin', hollerin', carryin-on' spirit that wouldn't feel authentic coming from a band of carpetbaggers. Indeed, much of American Gun's swagger can be traced to old-time country's bigwigs — The Man in Black, The Possum, The Red-Headed Stranger, The Killer and The King — and the parts of which that can't are easily touchstoned — Whiskeytown, Lucero (hell yes, Lucero; the band expertly covers Ben Nichols' "All the Same to Me" on Means), Americana, Brit-rock.
So while such easy sonic references are a music journo's dream, it begs the question: Where are the original bones in the band's body? The bones here come from songwriters Todd Mathis and Donald Merckle, the creative forces behind the band's attractive indie-Americana tunes. Typical dual-songwriter comparisons — Lennon-McCartney or, perhaps more appropriately, Farrar-Tweedy — don't exactly fit, as there's never the sense that one is pulling in an entirely different direction than the other. Besides, both probably fall more toward the Tweedy side of the scale anyhow, though Merckle's tunes tend to be darker, folksier affairs and Mathis' to be edgier, overdriven affairs. And, indeed, the album works its best magic when each sticks to his strengths: Merckle scores a one-two punch with the tongue-in-cheek opener "Drunk Girls" and the roots-poppy "Fight Song"; Mathis sets Means ablaze with follow-up tracks "Horses" and "Neil Young Mood." Those themselves make for an incredibly strong side one, and while it's not that side two is lackluster or disappointing, it's not really again until the tongue-in-cheek closing number, the Mathis-penned "Jesus Gave Us Rock 'n' Roll," that American Gun again hits on all cylinders. Again: There are good tracks — Mathis' longing, lonesome "First Impressions" most of all — but the second half's preponderance of slow-burners and plodding tearjerkers bleeds off a little too much momentum.
I'm not thrilled with Chris Stamey's production of the record — it's a bit airy and dissociated for a band whose live strength is foot-stomping fervor. Stamey's saving grace, though, is introducing the band to pedal-steel virtuoso Al Perkins, whose melodic lines glide with blissful grace. Indeed, it's the steel playing that pushes most of the tracks into the alt-country straosphere; and when you add flashes of mandolin and horn sections, it's that much tastier.
Ultimately, The Means and the Machine is about the same as American Gun's debut, Dark Southern Hearts: A good-not-great, immensely solid outing that, were the band not toiling in relative obscurity, would provide a nice addition to the hallowed catalogs of New West or Lost Highway.
American Gun [MySpace]
American Gun [official website]