Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Common Grackle excellently appropriates a dead genre to make its points

December 12, 2011

If rockabilly is ignored, western swing is forgotten. Sometimes a rockabilly release will see some coverage by flirting with the garage rock genre, but the 41-year-old Asleep at the Wheel and 13-year-old The Hot Club of Cowtown are the only bands that the wiki for western swing even acknowledges as currently existing. You know your genre is in trouble when…

Common Grackle, however, are here to fix this oversight. The sound of The Great Repression is anchored in western swing, occasionally crossing over to rockabilly, and it’s absolutely incredible. It’s not just that they appropriate the genre with skill; their use of the genre to say something about our culture is impressive. Rock’n’roll doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore; but uniqueness of western swing can.

And Gregory Pepper, vocalist/lyricist/songwriter for CG, certainly wants to raise eyebrows with his culture-skewering lyrics. “At the Grindcore Show” is a gentle two-step shuffle (complete with keening pedal steel!) that lays out his distaste for the grotesque theatricality of extreme music (“There’s severed goat heads stuck on pikes/and the only thing I know/is I don’t wanna die at the grindcore show”). “Thank God It’s Monday” is a wry, painful description of social outsiderdom (“All you honeys give a little honey to your homeboy/nobody wants to be the homeboy in my skin”). “All the Pawns” is a meandering musing on the current state of the economy. These narratives are presented inside an unusual genre, making the listener aware of everything. When there’s no affordances to hang on to, you’ve got to pay attention to everything.

And the band makes it worth your while to do so. Pepper’s voice is arresting, ranging from an emotive speak/sing (“At the Grindcore Show”) to outraged roar (“Safe Word Play”) while keeping a distinctly recognizable tone. The guitars swing (“Purgatory Rock and Roll”), sing (“Missed the Train”), sigh (“Please Stop”), roar (“The Great Depression”) and stumble (“Down With the Ship”) through the album with glee. The rhythm section pushes the pace throughout the entire album, heavy on snare and the up-down stand-up bass lines traditional in country. It all comes off flawlessly: the final charge to the end of the album in “The Great Depression” is just powerful.

The vocal melodies tie the lyrics and the instrumentals together: from the pristine “Quonset Hut” to the raging “The Great Depression” to the incredibly catchy “Thank God It’s Monday,” Pepper and his background vocalists deliver. You’ll be singing along shortly after you hear this for the first time. The melodies are too infectious not to do so.

The Great Repression says a ton in 10 songs and 26 minutes. An alternate view of music (and America) is crammed full of complaints, sarcasm and adrenaline here, and it’s worth investigating in detail. I talked about the more philosophical aspects of my relationship with The Great Repression a couple days ago, so you should read that as a companion piece; this one’s strictly about the music. And the music is excellent, climbing my top-of-the-year list.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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