Slobberbone – Barrel Chested

Barrel Chested (1997)

A

1. Barrel Chested 2. Lame 3. Engine Joe 4. Front Porch 5. I’ll Be Damned 6. Billy Prichard 7. Little Drunk Fists 8. Get Gone Again 9. Your Excuse 10. Haze of Drink 11. One Rung

 

On paper, this is basically the same record as Crow Pot Pie. Loud, sweaty cowpunk with the semi-regular foray into backwoods acoustic stuff or heavy, slow-burning story songs. Raunchy guitars. Lyrics about booze, no-good women, mean rednecks, and more booze. But there’s a four-letter word that explains what distinguishes Barrel Chested so drastically from its predecessor…

SHIT

No I’m just kidding, the word is tone. Tone is everything. It’s what turns the phrase “I’m gonna kill you” from a flippant ribbing between friends into the menacing promise of a deranged psychopath. And it’s what transforms a fun, rocking song about spousal murder into a brooding lament about fucking spousal murder. And that right there is Barrel Chested in a nutshell. Even the upbeat drinking songs are tinged with anger and regret, and there ain’t nothing “tinged” about the slower ones. This is an album about death, despair, and unrepentant alcoholism. As told by the loudest, most fun-loving bar band in town. Conventional, it is not. Know why I suddenly started writing like Yoda, I do not.

So it’s not like the album is just pure pain and misery or anything. This is hardly a Swans record. Its starts out fairly light, tonally speaking, actually – track 2 is called “Lame” and it’s a speedy barroom shout-along type thing, and track 3 is a rednecky, mostly acoustic novelty-sounding tune called “Engine Joe” and it’s about a smelly old man who runs a BBQ stand. But look deeper at the lyrics of even those songs and you’ll find darkness. “Take me home, I don’t mind, and now we both hate life/Face down in some bar you’ll find me waiting, wife, calling out your name,” Brent brays in “Lame.” And poor Engine Joe may just be “a dirty old man,” but he still “mangled his hand” fixing cars! Just the sonic character of the song begs to be taken seriously despite the silly lyrics about rodeo clowns and baked beans. That acoustic guitar, the dobro, Brent’s tight-jawed delivery – it conveys without words that Engine Joe isn’t just a joke, he’s a complicated character.

When you think about it, Barrel Chested hews to a sort of three-act cinematic structure. The first third is the most accessible and establishes the album’s themes; the second is a deep, dark dive into character challenges and conflicts; and the final stretch is a slam-bang, action-packed payoff (well, excluding the anti-climatic closer “One Rung,” which disappointingly sacrifices Brent’s distinctive songwriting personality in favor of sounding as much as possible like a Jay Farrar song). And to take that analogy further, we get a pretty much perfect opening setpiece in the title track, the opening couplet of which alone just about perfectly distills the themes explored on the album’s remainder: “I’m broken down and barrel chested again/Some people try for all their lives but they never make a dent.” Those lyrics tell us right off the bat that we’re not going to be getting any happy endings, but that powerhouse riff tells us that that doesn’t mean we can’t still have a good time along the way. It’s just one of those extremely simple yet insanely catchy guitar riffs that comes along every once in a while that’s fun to hear, fun to play, and demands to be cranked up to 11. “Front Porch,” similarly, is a more concise and catchy take on Barrel Chested’s common concepts, featuring Brent singing about fucking up his life and finding himself “passed out on the front porch with a head full of beer,” except with jangly guitars and a congenial melody.

There’s no respite from his demons on the middle part of the album, though. Well, “I’ll Be Damned” does have all those sorta hokey sounding 7th chords in it, but it also has lyrics about being stuck in a nowhere town forever because you spent all your money on booze, so it’s not exactly sunshine and rainbows. “Billy Pritchard,” on the other hand, oozes menace and anger, a masterfully written murder ballad full of twists and turns and revelation that are as visceral as a Carson McCullers story. And for as wordy and narrative focused as the song is, it’s remarkable how simultaneously propulsive the music is, steaming from verse to chorus like a freight train. Turns out pretending to be Bob Dylan and droning on monotonously for twelve verses ain’t the only way to tell a story in song. Go figure. And hey! Then we bottom out even further, first with the acoustic “Little Drunk Fists,” the most tenderly emotional reverie about a bar fight you’ll ever hear, and then the ultimate gut-punch, “Get Gone Again,” a relentless slow burn about misery and self-sabotage. “There’ve been girls that loved me/But I cheated on them/With a woman named Whiskey/And Gin, her best friend.” Oh, man.

If I may return to my hackneyed movie analogy for what is hopefully the final time, if Barrel Chested were in fact a film, some would surely complain about the “uneven pacing” of caused by this middle section. That it’s too slow and dirgy, especially in comparison to the more adrenaline-inducing material that surrounds it. Fair enough – truth be told it took me awhile to fully embrace it. But I think it works, thanks largely to the fact that we’re finally treated to a couple more big, sweaty rock songs at the end: the vaguely poppy “Your Excuse” and especially the almost metallically heavy “Haze of Drink,” which rocks fucking hard and everybody fucking knows it. In the vein of Crow Pot Pie, it makes getting fucked up and ruining your life sound like a hell of a good time. But after the songs that preceded it, one can’t help but dwell on the fact that Brent will inevitably wake up the morning after his bitchin’ bender wondering where it all went wrong and if things will ever get better.



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