ARTS

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February 6, 2004

Southern Culture should go back to roots

I have a confession to make: I was a teenage greaser.

Now, I'm not saying that I lacked personal hygiene (then or now), but that I was a bona fide roots rock fanatic, one who honestly thought that a greased-up pompadour, tight jeans, and engineer boots were not only cool, but would endear me to the hearts of women everywhere. Granted, such thoughts seem a bit silly (not to mention woefully ineffective) when looked back upon years down the line, but at the time, there was such a wonderful earthy earnestness in the music of a Charlie Feathers or a James Carr that made it seem foolish even to consider embracing something contrary.

It is in this very same earthiness that the staying power of truly wonderful roots music (be it soul, gospel, blues, country, etc.) lies. Although roots music rarely strayed from the traditional I-IV-V chord progression, it was filled with performers ferociously battling their technological and biological limits to leave a permanent mark upon a song. Singers hiccuped and stuttered while guitarists slashed their speaker cones for that dirty, distorted sound. Pianists committed assault and battery upon their cheap uprights. The drummers—well, it's best not to speak of them. And on top of it all, the truly amazing performers played with an absolute faith in their music, a conviction that they were truly making great songs for anyone who would listen.

However, there was a problem with roots music that I discovered towards the end of my brief greaser phase. Why listen to any of the new retro-whatever bands when the old masters and mistresses played with an intense sincerity that far outstrips any gimmickry on the part of the modern copycats? How could I justify listening to bands that simply aped the musicians I loved?

It is astride the horns of this particular dilemma that I once again find myself listening to Southern Culture on the Skids' newest album Mojo Box. Southern Culture on the Skids have been plying their faux-redneck, doublewide-living, longneck-swilling shtick nationwide since 1985, extolling the virtues of surf and rockabilly in equal measures.

While not without its problems, the combination of two musical styles—born a decade apart—helps drive Southern Culture on the Skids past the wanna-be category and into the listen-without-too-many-reservations category. Mojo Box is easily as much of a Dick Dale surf-influenced album as a greased up Carl Perkins record, which certainly helps add some musical variety to the listening experience. Balancing trashy rockabilly rave-ups (filled with throbbing guitars and pounding rhythms) with echo-laden instrumentals is no easy task; however, the band's incredible musicianship helps ease the transition between the two. From the blistering guitar dripping with echo and reverb in "The Wet Spot" to the stomping fury of the title track, "Mojo Box," the band feels comfortable with the conventions of the two disparate genres. Listening to the album, one gets the impression that the members of SCOTS spend their evenings on the tour bus pulling out old Ventures albums and listening to Sun Records b-sides.

However, while I can honestly understand and respect their reverence for the musical traditions of generations past, part of the problem with Mojo Box is its tendency to feel like a musical revue rather than an actual "roots" album. While the songs are well played and well composed, Southern Culture do fairly little to put their own individual stamp on the music. There are no signature riffs, and no attempt to reclaim the form for their own, aside from the white trash motifs that permeate the lyrics. Even the squeaky-clean production on the record feels a bit too sterile for the genre. Music this close to the soil should sound raw and dirty, not sanitized and rehearsed.

In other words, Southern Culture on the Skids sound more like the 20-something hipster clad in trucker hat and ripped jeans, desperately trying to cultivate an air of solidarity with the overworked truckers sitting in an interstate pancake house. They mean well and they know their stuff, but for some reason, they can only achieve a facsimile of the real thing.

While that seems like an overly negative reaction, let me assure you that I bear no real ill will towards hipsters (that'd be a bit of self-hatred), Southern Culture on the Skids, or Mojo Box. Mojo Box is a fine album when taken as I think it was intended—a jokey album made by skilled musicians who obviously revere their excellent source material. However, as someone who has seen a few of their peers transcend the modern baggage associated with retro sounds, it's disappointing to see SCOTS do so little with such promising source material. It's the album that could have been a contender.