I grew up in the considerably rural central part of West Virginia, so it was inevitable that at some point I would take up an interest in alt-country. Mainstream country was too reactionary–too yee-haw–and well, I could never have reconciled that with my love of Petula Clark. Alt-country, though, with its stylized, if not entirely accurate, view of economic hardship and mountain kinship was a suitable midway point between the reality of my upbringing and the rosy glow it gets painted with by folks who’ve never had the pleasure. So I indulged heartily in a slate of alt-country, slipping in Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo between Ben Folds Five or Ani DiFranco or whatever else was moderately cool in 1998. And then when I went to college I ditched it all and adopted Bob Dylan’s Midwestern faux-roots heritage.
Long story short, thank you Splinters & Sparrows for A Bastard, A Brother, A Foe and for reminding me what a great, weirdly nebulous subgenre alt-country is and how, despite everything, it can be surprisingly full of guts and soul. I’m not the kind of guy who spends a lot of time over pissing matches about authenticity, but when aging New York punk rockers pick up a harmonica and sing about coal towns I start wondering if their affectations really count for much. But I concede there’s a certain verve that’s more frame of mind than geographic orientation, and Massachusett’s Greg Loftus and company have zeroed right into the brawling big-heartedness you’d expect to find anywhere up and down the Blue Ridge. And it’s not posturing–it’s more like they just had the bad luck of being reincarnated on the wrong side of the Mason & Dixon.
A Bastard, A Brother, A Foe is Greg Loftus’s second release by Shepherdstown, WV’s Big Bullet Records and the first with a backing band. (His first album No Taking Prisoners Tonight was BBR’s inaugural release and is still available for order.) From stem to stern, the album has an aching, restless feeling about it. As much as the songs harbor a certitude about where the man’s been and who he is, there’s an equal amount of hesitation; he knows he’s right, but is that enough? I used to do a lot of 3am last-call drinking–where was this album when I finally stumbled home?
All nine tracks are solid and sit beside one another well. I’m especially partial to “Carolina Gun Down”, a fitful song that itches to get to the anthemic singalong chorus and takes its time getting around to the rest. For what it’s worth, I typically stare blankly at the wall when I’m trying to figure out a song, but barely halfway through the first chorus my foot was tapping. I figured that’s as good a sign as any, and now I’ve probably heard “Carolina Gun Down” a good dozen times more often than the rest of A Bastard, A Brother, A Foe. But all the tracks enjoy an occasional strutting wistfulness or a winking smile. “What’s wrong with old fashioned?” asks Loftus in “Like Wildfire”, and that’s a very good question indeed.
If I were pressed to think of a bone to pick with A Bastard, A Brother, A Foe (and judging from that awesome title, I would hesitate to do so), it would be that there’s no weepy ballad. Now, maybe Loftus isn’t the weepy type, or maybe I’ve just become too accustomed to teary eyed balladeers aping Hank Williams’s anti-sobriety songwriting style, but an album as consistently bare-knuckled as this needs to slow down a bit now and then. Give us something to drunk call by. But if this is the only drawback that comes to mind, don’t sweat it, fellas.
Splinters & Sparrows are currently working their asses off, gearing up for a stint of shows in Massachusetts, New York and thereabouts before gearing up for, well, more shows elsewhere. They’ll be at The Blue Moon in Shepherdstown May 28, so damn sure I’ll be tying a string around my finger to remember that.
A Bastard, A Brother, A Foe will be available from Big Bullet Records in late spring or early summer. Set aside some pocket money for it. You can order Loftus’s other work–in addition to the rest of BBR’s awesome stable–at www.bigbulletrecords.com or from the Splinters & Sparrows MySpace page.