Every time that someone sends me western swing, I want to write this opening paragraph again. Let’s just say I love this genre, not many other people my age do, and I feel like I have to do my part to help it out whenever I can. Pearls Mahone‘s Echoes from the Prairie is about as squarely planted in Western Swing as you can possibly be, which means that there’s sassy vocals, perky arrangements, and enough good vibes to go around two or three times. It’s also a lot of fun, regardless of if you’re into the genre or not.
So, just by being a western swing band, Mahone is calculated to get a high score from me. Beyond that, she’s an incredible artist: her voice is powerful and evocative and her choice of songs is brilliant. (Bonus: She’s got a song about my home state of Oklahoma.) Mahone’s voice is a confident alto that can be used a variety of ways: she can pull off vulnerable, sultry, sassy, and sentimental. “Saint & Sinner” also captures in a title the two sides of the coin that she espouses lyrically here: the brash “I Had Someone Else…” (“before I had you / and I’ll have someone after you’re gone”) and materialistic “Flash Your Diamonds” contrast with more tender work, like the nostalgic “Oklahoma Hills” and Billie Holliday’s “All of Me.”
The clutch of tunes at the end of the record is particularly entrancing: the last few start off with a thrilling “St. James Infirmary” and a earnest-in-sound “Old Time Religion” (which is elsewhere known as “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion,” a different song than the traditional “Old Time Religion,” but we’re getting into the weeds now). A short a capella version of “Go to Sleep Little Baby” (which you may know from O Brother Where Art Thou) comes next. Then Mahone seals the deal with a sparse, beautiful version of Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home,” one of my favorite tunes.
Mahone is thoroughly vintage in sound and immage (even evoking vintage typography and photography on her album cover), but she’s crafted an album of tunes that are perky, enthusiastic, and charming. If I had my way, everybody would listen to this and fall in love with Western swing. But until that great (hypothetical) day, we have a remarkable album to enjoy in Echoes from the Prairie.
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 Repressiona 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 Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.