The Strange Boys - Be Brave
(In The Red, 2010)
Remember when blogs far and wide were falling over themselves to proclaim Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion the best album of '09 after the year was only a few weeks deep? Yeah, that was pretty dumb, especially considering it was that band's worst showing to date, shearing off all the rough, ragged, and obnoxious charm from their earlier LPs to reveal a slight, inoffensive blob of aural novocaine. People are gonna feel pretty dumb when they look back on that one, I reckon. Fast forward to 2010, and I'm here to proclaim that I've heard the best LP of the year, and it's only March. Call me a hypocrite if you will, and you probably will by the time you've finished reading this post, but Be Brave, the second full-length from Austin TX's Strange Boys is an instant classic. Not only is it head and shoulders above their charming debut, The Strange Boys and Girls Club, it might just end up as one of the best albums of all time, period.
Opening track "I See" kicks off with lazy, loping guitars, a honkin' harmonica, and cheery bells, and it's quickly apparent that singer, guitarist, and Strange-Boy-in-chief Ryan Sambol is down in the mouth and picking himself off the floor after a long night out. Yeah, it's an old story. Would you believe that a woman did him wrong? He's seen the light peeking out from the corner of the blinds, and it's not a pretty sight. He moans, "Tonight's dinner is tomorrow's shit, so enjoy it before it stinks" as the song stumbles to the finish, and it's pretty goddamn crass, but still profound in its blunt honesty. There's gonna be some cutting remarks and hurt feelings on display before this one is through, believe me! The rest of the album shambles along in the same fashion, mixing the sloppy, jangling sprawl of garage rock influences that made up The Strange Boys and Girls Club with lonely, droning country blues that cuts like a knife. Though the presentation is still loose and easy-going, Be Brave shows a band maturing with rapid speed, evolving into something that resembles the World's Greatest Rock N' Roll Band more than sane minds would care to admit. Call it Exile On Sixth Street.
As a life-long music fan and observer, the cynic in me thinks the notion that the Strange Boys have grown artistically is a joke. They've simply gone from ripping off mid-'60s Rolling Stones to ripping off the drugged-out, downbeat country-blues of Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street. Be Brave is tighter, more self-assured, and just plain BETTER than anything they've done before, but what makes it so great when all they're doing is copying the career path of a band that blazed the trail forty years ago? Well, as an art form, music has reached a dead end. Ain't nothin' out there that hasn't been done before, and all genres have been crossed and melded a million times a million different ways, apart from maybe country-electronica (oh wait, "Cotton-Eyed Joe"). You don't need me to tell ya that the Stones were just a bunch of middle-class British art-school kids ripping off their favorite black bluesmen from the deep south. Everything old can become new again, etc. If Mick Jagger can ape Howlin' Wolf through the lens of the '60s cultural revolution, then why can't Ryan Sambol and the Strange Boys do the same in an era of post-post modernism drowning in so many layers of irony that even the average rube can't figure out what's genuine anymore?!
All it takes anymore is the lack of a cable television subscription to feel cut off from the world. It's that feeling that snakes its way through Be Brave, a collection of a dozen songs that instantly transports you back to a dingy, sun-blasted Austin recording studio, maybe the same one where the Sir Douglas Quintet cut their classic records so long ago. I'm not the first person to suggest that the current tidal wave of raw, noisy garage rock is an obvious reaction to the gaudy, glitzy, and superficial direction that mainstream music has taken in the last few years, but I'll be goddamned if it isn't the honest truth. Now, it's as easy as dialing up the "sad" preset on the Pro Tools rig to create some standardized depression. I've heard so much soul-less and skin-deep melancholy as of late, and it's always colored with phony tabloid angst and cutesy attempts to shock. Sambol just drops gem after gem in his slurred, whiny, matter-of-fact drawl, and evokes the spirits of Roky Erickson, Mick n' Keef, and Mr. Zimmerman. Who's to fault him for growing up in the wrong era? "I smile and think sex is like laughter. You do it differently with different people, and sometimes you feel sick after."
So yeah, I evoked the names of some heavy hitters from the past, much like a last-call bar comedian evokes the jokes in a desperate play for some early morning companionship. The music on Be Brave is timeless and universal, so forgive the outrageous hyperbole. Sometimes, music hits you at just the right moment, capturing the right mood and feel so perfectly that it attains instant sentimental value. Hell, I even tried to buy the fucking thing, only to find out my friendly neighborhood record shop didn't have the LP in stock. Sure, I could have bought the CD, but who wants that?! This album demands to be pulled out of a big-ass sleeve, placed on a turntable, and appointed as the soundtrack to a long afternoon of lounging around in contemplative thought. After all, it's only rock n' roll, and the Strange Boys haven't forgotten. You gotta be brave. It don't seem like no choice to me. Sooner or later, the night time comes back around, and everything starts over again.