More anachronisms

Jan 26, 2000 at 12:00 am
Since 1988, the Volebeats – who, as of this recording, were Jeff Oakes, Matthew Smith, Bob McCreedy, Russell Ledford and Scott Michalski – have been reaching into the recesses of cultural memory to breathe new life into old ideas, building new expectations in the midst of cliché-heavy musical forms. Solitude, the band’s fourth full-length record since 1989’s Ain’t No Joke (rereleased in 1999 by Gadfly), quite simply saves whole catalogs of countrified regret ‘n’ roll from complete irrelevance, reopening the books on lyrical sorrow, well-crafted rock production and theme-strewn LPs.

The album is built out of a combination of nearly sublime instrumentals followed closely by gorgeous alt-country ballads. The instrumentals – more than half written by guitarist-vocalist Oakes – such as "Desert Song" and "Kala," which start the record, set the somber surfer vibe of the disc and provide it with its thematic structure, placed as they are evenly among the ballads.

But it’s the ballads – three of which were written by omnipresent guitarist-vocalist Smith (also of Outrageous Cherry) – that make the record. In "Back in a Minute," Smith recounts, "I loved you / while you loved someone else / who was in love with someone else / who pretended to love me," setting up the melodramatic panorama in which his character can only stare blankly "into infinity." Later, "Lonely Way to Go" sees the Voles break formation to allow in strings, an organ and multilayered vocals, so that Smith, after telling us how he was played for a fool, can explain how his monotonous days without her now end: "Unlock the door and up the stairway / take off my coat my shoes and then I say / Hello walls, ain’t seen you all day / ain’t that a lonely way to go."

There is no crowding of the arrangements or garish hustle in these songs; authenticity is on sale, but it’s not being hawked at the expense of the Volebeats’ own identity, a minor miracle for a sound – somewhere between the Ventures and Gram Parsons – that, like certain lovers, hangs on well past the sell-by date.