February 16, 2004

Starlings, TN "Between Hell and Baton Rogue"

I have little time for a lot of music that's passed off as "alt.country." For those who may not know, the term means 'alternative country;' it comes from some country-loving computer types from the turn of the century, and 'alt.country' was an online discussion area for people who enjoyed bands like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks, among many, many others. In other words, it's music that's too 'weird' (or too 'rock and roll') by those who like traditional country, and too 'cool' to be straight-up country. Sadly, like 'grunge,' 'alternative' and 'emo,' the term's been played up beyond usefulness by both bands and journalists. There's more to being a country band than having a cover of 'Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way' in the setlist and a scratched-up copy of Still Feel Gone in the tour van. I have little interest in keeping that antiquated notion alive; it's 2004, let's move on, please.

Though I can't vouch for them, I'm pretty sure that Starlings, TN would agree. Though information on the band is vague at best, this Tennessee foursome are more interested in gathering up all those really cool olden-days instruments like banjos, jew's harp, dulcimer, and pedal steel guitar and making a genre-bending debut album that, at the very least, is really damn cool. Instead of going the 'traditional' route, Starlings, TN decide to get just a little bit heady, and in so doing, they have accomplished something that's quite rare: a thoroughly modern-sounding record that is built on the foundations of the past.

It would be easy to dismiss the purple prose of a reviewer who would say "this is the sound of Grandaddy gone bluegrass," but in the case of Starlings, TN, such flights of fancy are about the only way to capture the magic of Between Hell and Baton Rouge. The opening electronic drone of "Tramps Rouge" would easily lead you to think that you've just stepped into a blessed Jason Lytle mess, but when the banjos and vocals come in, you soon see that, nope, you've been duped. Best part? The realization that the instruments of the 21st Century can play nicely with instruments that are often dismissed as being 'backwoods,' and the sound of songs ancient and modern sounds...real..good. But the biggest surprise is this: when listening to "Burnin' Up The Blacktop/Lazyana," the epic that concludes the album, you realize that these guys are also influenced by another, less obvious style: shoegazing.

For an album that's so traditional on the surface, Between Hell & Baton Rouge promises nothing, gives no loyalty to anyone, and is all the better for it. The rest of Between Hell and Baton Rouge follows very close to that formula, through songs such as the heartbreaking "Lonesome Road Blues," the joyous hoedown of "Last Five," the brooding "Every Day is Sunday." Along the way, lead singer Steve Stubblefield throws in some twisted, pointed humor, on songs such as "Forbidden Fruit Makes a Sticky Jam." I've always wished that the Handsome Family would stop flirting with technology and actually do something like this, but Starlings, TN have beat the Sparks to the punch, delivering a record that is funny, sad, depressing and utterly breathtaking.

Yeah, breathtaking. You've probably never knew that 'country' music could sound this way. Thank goodness, then, that Starlings, TN, have taken the time to sacrilege, because the fruits of their labor are certainly worth the damnation. Between HEll and Baton Rouge is an album that sounds like everything you've always hoped for, even though you didn't expect anyone could have done it this well. It's a fitting and promising start for Starlings, TN.

Are you sure Hank done it this way?

I know he didn't.

And thank God for that.

--Joseph Kyle

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