Musical collaborators for some 25 years, the duo finally make an album together, a collection of alt-country rockers and honky tonk ballads that fully captures the good time they clearly had making it.
A songwriting partnership since the 1990s, Johnny Irion once fronted 90s rockers Queen Sarah Saturday while Stinson’s been sideman to the likes of Lucinda Williams and Christina Aguilera. Some years back, the pair worked together in a band generally known as the Space Heaters, but never recorded anything. Then, in 2011, their friend Andy Butler-Jones of progrock outfit Big Elf passed, having gifted the duo many of his songs. Fast forward to today and, the two getting back together, that music has been dusted down and revisited with eleven tracks, five written by their late bandmate, now making their appearance on this belated duo debut, reworked in Irion’s studio, with contributions from members of Chatham County Line, Social Distortion, and Butler-Jones’ longtime associate Damon Fox and released, bizarrely, by the famed pencil-making company.
It kicks off in swaggering style with the country rocking ‘The Bottle And Me’, basically either a love song to booze or a dark snapshot of alcoholism depending on how you view lines like:
When the boss says dig I say how deep? Long as he don’t come between the bottle and me.
Things get slower and slightly psychedelic blues for the wah wah guitar groove of the on the way to the bottom ‘Working My Way Down’, another Butler-Jones number that keeps the booze imagery going with
I painted your image on the barstool next to mine Where I spend most every day You drink the water and I’ll drink the wine Til this honky tonk becomes a cabaret And though my prospects were growing cold I staked my claim out on fool’s gold
The vocals echoey and the guitars distorted and twansgsome, Irion’s ‘Ponderosa Pine’ is more upbeat with traces of Neil Young to the whine to its coming back to you love song:
I left you on the Middle Fork, you didn’t want to go Your roots are on the riverbanks way back in Idaho I’m gonna come and find you, I can’t get you off my mind Honey you’re sweet as a Ponderosa Pine
The guitar sound gets throatier and the mood swampier with the slow swaying ‘Only Friend I Ever Had’, another Butler-Jones number about booze bonding
And now I’m hollow inside and we’ve said our goodbyes One of us should go But it’s closing time and I’m so far out of line With the only friend I ever had
The vibe stays gnarly and rocky with ‘Cosmic Candy’ and its Velvet Underground tinged sketch of some femme fatale who could easily be kin to the woman of the same name who took a walk on the wild side
She was gonna have a show at the Dreamaway But the Becket police they sent her on her way She went kicking and streaming for all she could get From her sugar daddies on the internet
She got out of LA boy safe and sound For all her subscribers they love her to death Serving up that old time carney burlesque
The first two Stinson contributions come back to back, the first being moving on number ‘Taking No For An Answer’:
When the revenuer come looking for me Tell him check between the devil and the deep blue sea I done twenty years on a rusty blade Now he can kiss my ass and watch my taillights fade
Slurringly sung and underpinned by a syncopated electronic drum beat, the lyric namechecks Hank Snow (and indeed Jerry reed) but sports a melody reminiscent of Hank Thompson’s ‘Wild Side Of Life’. The other’s the harmonica wailing mind-tempo rocker ‘Brand New Love Song’ with its shades of 70s country pop to its cascading chords, piano lines and catchy chorus:
I got a brand new love song to sing for you And the worst thing about it, yeah the worst thing about it The worst thing about it is it’s true.
The fourth Butler-Jones track, the Midnight Cowboy-haunted ‘LA Cowboy’ with its ‘I live here but it’s not home’ theme , once again addresses his recurring motif:
Every swing of the bottle knocks me to the ground But I would spend my last dollar just to stand another round
By way of a musical tangent, they drop in a cover of the now standard status ‘You Came A Long Way From St. Louis’ written in 1948 by jazz pianist and composer John Benson Brooks, though here revamped as a barroom piano boogie rocker a la Jerry Lee Lewis.
Stinson’s third number, Last Chance To Hide From Love, provides the penultimate track, a dreamy 50s-styled doo wop romantic ballad swayer complete with female backing chorus that might easily slip into a Willie Nelson collection. Finally, it ends with the fifth of their late friend’s compositions, going out in suitably alt-country rocking style with fuzz-distorted guitars and driving drums on Stranger Here Myself about having made the wrong connections:
I made off with the foreman’s youngest daughter She led me like a lamb to the slaughter And nine months to the day we were in the family way And headed where the wine tastes like water And, yes, maybe needing a little liquid support to make it through. If I’m destined to live in harness I’ll need some help getting through the darkness.
Workmanlike rather than inspired perhaps, nevertheless it’s packed with ear-worm melodies and hooks and sounds clearly like the guys were having a good time in the studio, and if you close your eyes and transform your room into some truckstop bar joint with this blasting from the stage, then so will you.