Cover illustration from The Rover and Adventure comic book #123, June 1, 1963
I thought of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of alt-country music for a while. I think it started when I bought Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne in high school and it blew my mind, but I actually never strayed too far from the Wilco/Jayhawks/Oldham axis of the genre. At this point, it's been two years since I got excited about a new alt-country release, but The Volebeats - an out-of-the-blue contender for my favorite album of 2010 - is turning back time for me (a la Cher) and making it all seem new again.
The Volebeats are one of those great bands that barely even exists. They've been occasionally assembling, recording, and disbanding since 1989 according to the whims of frontman Jeff Oakes and guitarist/man-of-a-thousand-Detroit-bands Matthew Smith. They've recorded with a variety of Michigan musicians over the years, but I have to admit that I'd never heard of them (that I can remember) until I impulsively ordered their self-titled album recently. A nineteen-track alt-country tour de force, The Volebeats has all the attributes that I love from circa-1998 alt-country rock: Hank Williams traditionalism, British Invasion pop tunefulness, and plenty of Byrds-Buffalo-Springfield-Burrito-Brothers jangle and harmony.
With bare-bones arrangements built around strummed acoustic guitar and Matthew Smith's clean guitar leads, The Volebeats relies heavily on songwriting and harmonies to keep the listener entranced, and they pull it off surprisingly well over the album's hour-plus length...with one exception. The album's opening track, Oakes' "With You", is a real snoozer and almost had me convinced that I'd made a terrible mistake, but after that the album jumps from highlight to highlight. I'd argue that Smith's contributions here outshine those of Oakes by a slight margin, but the song's that are collaborations between the two are among the best.
Oakes and Smith each deliver one song of "twang-less" power-pop perfection - the former's "Me and You" is the album's obvious single, and the latter's "Things People Say" is the best power-pop song of 2010 by my reckoning. But the rest of the album skews heavily to jangly country-rock, from the Everly-Brothers-esque "Kathleen No" and "We Don't Like to Forget" to the melancholy greatness of tracks like "Dreams Come True" and "I'm Not Gonna Change My Mind". Covers of Ray Davies' "This Is Where I Belong" and Gene Simmons' (?!?) "See You Tonight" seem like potential padding in The Volebeats' marathon tracklist, but this album honestly doesn't seem long to me. And the key indicator is that I am playing it over and over again while other new releases are gathering dust. I recommend "1,000 Miles of Confusion" to get a sense of what's so great about this album - it has those harmonies and that clean guitar jangle, as well as a great lyric from Smith and an excellent chorus hook.
"1,000 Miles of Confusion" by the Volebeats