If you’re on the wrong side of youth, still struggling at or below the poverty level, and waking up alone each morning (you know what you did) like me then this summer has been about the best one in your alcohol induced diabetic memory for solid alt country releases. Count ’em off, Shovels and Rope, Trampled By Turtles, Andrew Bird, Mary Gauthier, Old Crow Medicine Show… And the corn’s only knee high yet. To that list of important acts, it’s my pleasure to introduce to you: Denver.
Geographically confused, this five piece Portland group pays homage to classic country structure on their first full length release, Rowdy Love (Mama Bird) while sounding anything but dated. You hear Merle Haggard sprawled across the album’s 11 tracks, you hear a touch of George Jones, but as opposed to the leading men of Nashville’s Big Radio Country market, what you don’t hear is imitation. Denver’s real strength with Rowdy Love is it’s true to form evolution of the country format.
Opening track, “Lonesome, Lonely, and Alone’s” sentimental hindsight on missteps that led from every past glory to the current desultory condition implied by the song’s title is a subtle reminder that good times and women come and go, sadness has a place in our lives and its important to keep that in perspective while the hangover wears off of a Sunday morning after spending every last damn dime, again. But Denver doesn’t wallow in misery, they “Carry On.” Track three, “A Way Out,” meets misery with humor as a veritable response to the introductory alliteration. The answer: pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and taking that first step down the road. None ya worry cowboy, there’ll always be more booze, more broads and better times ahead, just past that next curve in the road.
The following entry, “Bird in the Morning Dew,'” best illustrates Denver’s diversity. Featuring soft toned electric melody a la Nico over mid-bass vocalizing, there’s a coy toying in lyrics like, “I bet your name is something pretty / Give me your number, cos I’m coming round.” It’s delivery is charmingly disarming, clever enough to grab attention but ballsy enough to work.
Though many of the themes on individual tracks are similar, what keeps this album in focus, and propels the narratives is the trade off in vocal and songwriting duties. Birger Olsen, Mike Elias and Tom Bevitori make up this intriguing upstart and it’s glaringly apparent they are as comfortable with each others styles as they are with incorporating disparate influences. Excellently produced by folk/country wonderkind Eric Earley of seminal Portland drovers Blitzen Trapper the cycling of lead vocal duties keeps things fresh. By inserting comedy, or at least upbeat tracks between the genre’s more typical bawling n’ brawling numbers the pairing of polarizing themes lends a sense of integrity to both ends of the spectrum. The highs are blind drunk high flyingecstasy while the lows are bone crushing. By turns Rowdy Love is rocking, humorous, sentimental and insightful… and even a little romantic? Fans of southern rock, classic country, folk narratives, and brown liquor will find themselves right at home with Denver.
In today’s age its not a very popular thing, that whole kicking out at the world, individual-versus-society, hardluck love life, eternal country western cowboy. I don’t know why. Maybe’s its the cliche’s saturating airwaves out of Nashville. Maybe it’s the flash and fizzle buzz from Brooklyn. One thing is certain, the relentless back beat of top 40 pop, the arrogance of hip-hop, and the misery for misery’s sake of modern rock don’t hold a drop in the bucket of the integrity found in outsider country. What detractors confuse for remorse isn’t regret so much as heritage. There’s a history there, in the songs, in the personalities. Much like the country as a whole over the past fifteen years Denver’s made some mistakes. It isn’t so much guilt as acceptance of responsibility drawn along the tracks of Rowdy Love. Maybe that’s why the genre isn’t so popular. Portland ain’t keeping it weird, they’re keeping it honest. That’s the thing about making mistakes, at least Denver can admit it.