Bobby Bare, Jr. has veered all over the road. The son of a '60s country hitmaker ("Detroit City") who plied red-state grunge with his band Bare Jr., then went sentimental and acoustic on his debut, he's found his middle ground, equal parts rustic and electric, on his third album with the Young Criminals Starvation League.
Several administrations ago, the Replacements released a shambling cover of Hank Williams '"Hey, Good Lookin'" as a B-side, helping to make country music safe for the indie rock nation. You can hear Paul Westerberg's country side all over The Longest Meow, most clearly on "Demon Valley," right down to the way Bare punctuates the song's hook with a silly little smack of his lips. Bare also comes off as a guy who digs the songcrafty side of indie-rock, like Daniel Johnston and Guided by Voices. The Pixies, too — Bare groans out an acoustic cover of "Where Is My Mind" so intimate it sounds like he made everyone else leave the building. Not to mention the new New South sound descended from Drivin 'N Cryin and the Georgia Satellites, bands who fused literate songwriting with fierce pick-up truck rock, the kind of stuff that got a lot of attention in the mid '80s, when R.E.M. led the industry to believe the entire South was the next Liverpool. (The sore-throat crack in Bare's voice is strongly reminiscent of Drivin N Cryin's Kevn Kinney, but maybe that's not his fault.) But the 'Mats define Bare's musical world — a lot of his protagonists graft the doleful characters that inhabit so many country songs onto Westerberg's witty beautiful losers. It's difficult to believe that someone so unlucky in life could be so quick with sharp lines like "If I was a shirt I wouldn't be on nobody's back," but the conceit is a longstanding one, and Bare's barstool charm easily suspends our disbelief.
The Longest Meow's opener, "The Heart Bionic," swings like a barn door in a windstorm; then we're straight into "Gun Show," an eerie twist on the murder ballad that morphs precipitously into a slow-coasting rustic rocker. Things are going to be eclectic, Bare wants us to know. The fact that there's a different lineup on virtually every track helps boost the album's range: Bare's core band — guitarist Carl Broemel and drummer Patrick Hallahan, both of My Morning Jacket, and bassist Brad Jones — are supported by a varied but Southern-centric cast: Doni Schroader from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead on vibes, keyboards and percussion; Jim James of My Morning Jacket on vocals and harmonica (he briefly solos on "Back to Blue"); Deanna Varagona from Lambchop on vocals and saxophone; and Ben Martin of Clem Snide on percussion..
On the mariachi-tonk of "Back to Blue," Bare trots out as honeyed a tone as he can manage, while on the big, dumb rock of the throwaway "Uh Wuh Oh," he wails incoherently on the verses, the song's sole purpose seemingly just to set up the doleful steel on "Demon Valley." The strum und twang of "Borrow Your Cape," the album's tour de force, partakes of MMJ's towering southern grandeur with an epic guitar riff that Bare knows all too well you won't be able to get enough of.
The album has a little gimmick that perpetuates the raw = authentic trope of this strain of rock — "11 songs — 11 people — 11 hours" it says in the liner notes. While that's a little misleading — trumpet overdubs and vocal fixes took place at a later date and the whole thing was meticulously rehearsed — the recording does get the spontaneous, warts-and-all feel Bare was shooting for. You can hear the sound of the room he was in and, despite the record's hit-or-miss tendencies, it's one you'll want to revisit. Bare wears his tattered heart on his beer-stained sleeve in time-honored fashion, self-pity counterbalanced by good cheer, and anyone who's a fan of this distinctively bloodshot sub-subgenre will swill it down like one too many cold PBRs on a hot Saturday night.