Monday, April 09, 2007

CD REVIEW: Bobby Bare, Jr.'s Young Criminals Starvation League's "The Longest Meow"

Label: Bloodshot Records

When it was announced that Bobby Bare, Jr. was releasing a new album last September, this reviewer became instantly excited. After all, Bare Jr. has already proven to be an outstanding artist on the rise. He and his band, the Young Criminals Starvation League, have established an original sound that refuses to be pinned down in any one genre, and his songwriting is already living up to the family name established by his legendary father, Bobby Bare, Sr. His previous album, From the End of Your Leash, had become a personal favorite. So, when I heard that the new album, The Longest Meow, was set for release, naturally, I was quite interested. After doing a little research and learning that the album contained 11 songs, was made in 11 hours, and that he had used 11 players to record it, I became even more intrigued. What an interesting concept, I thought. Something only Bobby Bare, Jr. could dream up! I knew I had to hear this record.

So how is it? Well… it’s okay. In many respects it lives up to the level of excellence one would expect from Bare. In some instances though, it falls a little short.

First, the musicianship is flat-out incredible. The 11-person group of musicians (including members of My Morning Jacket and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) is on fire throughout the record. Whether it’s the heavy rocking “The Heart Bionic,” the mariachi-flavored “Back to Blue,” or the sparse cover of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” the music is always top-notch, and memorable at every turn. In this respect, Bare has outdone himself, as he has never created a better “sounding” record than The Longest Meow.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for an outstanding set of songs from start to finish, as Bare provided on his previous album, you will likely be a little let down. While some of the songs are among his finest achievements, others, especially towards the end of the record, fail to make a memorable impression.

The Longest Meow starts out very strong. In fact, the first three songs make up one of the best opening trios of any album released in 2006. After a brief sonic intro, we have the previously mentioned “The Heart Bionic.” The song, with its incredible bass line, hearkens back to Bare Jr.’s heavier past. It’ll stick in your head for hours. “Gun Show” follows, and with it, so does a dark aura that seems to haunt most of Meow’s greatest songs. This dark tale of death screams Springsteen’s Nebraska. Finally, the last song of this tremendous threesome is “Back to Blue.” Featuring a horn section, wonderful steel guitar, extremely clever, abstract wordplay, and an overall country-rock vibe, it reminds listeners of Desire-era Bob Dylan.

However, the rest of The Longest Meow is hit-and-miss. Some songs reek of that horrible little f-word… filler. While the abstract wordplay works for songs like “Back to Blue,” it does not work for a song like “Sticky Chemical.” “Uh Wuh Oh” and “Snuggling World Championship” are fun little rockers, but there is not much in terms of lyrical depth… usually one of Bare’s greatest strengths. And while “Mayonnaise Brain” is fine lyrically, it’s perhaps a little too low-key musically, and fails to stand out the way it should.

Still, some songs live up to the quality established by the first three tracks. The journey through hell that is “Demon Valley” is great, as is the album’s tear-jerking closer, “Stop Crying.” It’s one of those rare break-up songs that cannot be called cliché in any way. Finally, “Borrow Your Cape” is an outstanding political anthem that delivers a serious punch. Some of Bare’s all-time best lyrics can be found in this song. It’s direct, but clever at the same time. After listening to this song, it makes me wonder why Neil Young didn’t call up Bare to help him write songs on his recent Living With War album. “Borrow Your Cape” is better than any song on Mr. Young’s rather disappointing recent collection.

Around the time that the album came out, a friend of mine (and fellow reviewer) received a copy of Meow. It was the first Bare Jr. album he had heard, and he was completely in love with it. This says a great deal about both Bare and this record. Even though The Longest Meow may not be a great Bare Jr. record, it certainly would be a solid record if it were released by most anyone else. If you are looking for an album of the same quality as the first two Young Criminals Starvation League records, you will probably be disappointed. However, even though it’s flawed, Meow is still a good album… and merits a listen.

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