This Criminal Soul, American Millennial Cowboy
This record is the most unapologetic flaming heart on a scuffed leather sleeve I have heard in years. Others have struck the pose, but their antics seem like ironic bilge theater; they are mocking what they think they know, churning out riffs and monotonous machismo like it was 1986 on the Sunset Strip and they had better hair.
To compare them to this is to strike a Faustian bargain; in exchange for the ease in comparison, the critic is assured a place in some swampy nether region…possibly New Jersey. Not the nice bits, the orange quagmires outside Elizabeth where the chemical plants used to dump exotic effluence.
I can’t even review this in order. It won’t let me, and I have learned better than to fight this record. I cannot win.
“Fuck You, California” is, in either iteration, possibly the best love song ever (especially the session version, because I am a fool for kazoo solos or solos that sound like kazoos are playing them. I blame Depeche Mode.) As a fortysomething who was alive for Steve Perry’s stint in Journey, I know power ballads when I hear them. Such is not the case; a man knows he is the second choice after career or adventure, and he deals with it, almost like a mature adult (please reread the song title), right in front of you. When Christoph Whitbeck loves you, you stay loved.
Speaking of that, if his character from “Mostly Naked” is any indication, you might want to get tested for some really exotic diseases…but he loves you no less. I believe it. The debauched protagonist knows better but chooses to impede higher brain function. If you have never been there, you have probably never been in a failed relationship. More power to you, if so, but we’re not here to talk about you. Write your own material.
This whole record is love songs. There is no schmaltz, no whole-notes soaring into the ether while doves descend or vinyl pants attain maximum stretchpoint. On “Burn”, Whitbeck delivers the even darker side of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Energy Blues”…this planet is in trouble, and the people responsible should know much better. I don’t want to think he’s right, but his conviction is not as fluttery as, say, Olivia Newton-John’s “Silvery Rain.”
“65 Corvette” is the song Rob Zombie would have written if he wasn’t afflicted with terminal gorehounding. It sits between “Thunder Kiss” and “Black Sunshine”, but its heart, that most curious of interlopers, renders them miniscule guitar-store deedlings in comparison.
“Ride Or Die!” is a behemoth of riffology; in addition to its posthypnotic implant of a chorus, it is genuinely cool and funny and I really want to know what happens to this set of characters next. I won’t spoil it, but there are fleur-de-lis jeans and future mercenaries and toddlers with the gift for speed.
I don’t want to talk about “Sharon.” I don’t. Listening to Whitbeck, I’m amazed he can. Not all love ends well, or is entirely fair, or occurs between two people who are on equal biochemical footing. I’ve been there a couple of times, and while this didn’t trigger me, I certainly recognized some parts of it from past lives. If he concocted all of it, he’s a genius. If he lived all of it, he’s a saint.
Of course, some saints are Augustine of Hippo, which brings us to the title track, “American Millennial Cowboy.” It is here to steal your lunch money, although not literally. America has an addiction to cities; Alexis de Tocqueville noted this during his post-Revolutionary War travels around the former Colonies. The evolving grandeur of New York, the nascent glory of Washington, DC…these were spires atop the American imagination. Again, the riffs are infectious and a character you might easily call the cops on, any other day, becomes the kind of antihero most of us wish we were. It is adolescent, puerile, and utterly irresistible.
“Animal” is an intimate look at fear and our deepest instincts and death and love. Again, and pretty much always, love is a cosmic force that anneals the vertebrae like an X-Men character’s (although no adamantium is used, in this instance) and acts as a shield against the dark. Sometimes, that darkness wins. Not today.
“Yo-Yo Blues” would be a ubiquitous paean to self-respect if it wasn’t so self-aware. The lover spurns our hero, but expects him to return when she snaps her fingers. That is not happening. The martial imagery of the hero as arrow, bullet, or boomerang, makes sense in context (thus elevating above most lyrics about arrows, bullets, or boomerangs that I can recall) because he cites some of the rudimentary physics involved. If you let him go, he is gone. He is not, in the words of Sir Mix-A-Lot, to be played that fool…but there is an underlying wound in Christoph Whitbeck’s voice, even as he reaffirms that he doesn’t do rematches.
“Filibuster” is, I think, a joke of a title; if you know what the word means, you get an idea of how it might have been selected for the album. The fact that it is a great, solid instrumental that doesn’t indulge in lofty braggadocio makes it a B-side worthy of one of the old Iron Maiden picture discs (I recall transcribing the Steve Harris interview from one, only to realize that his lyrics are deep, and his bass playing legendary, but his accent is impenetrable.)
As a musician, I often joke about pure rock fury. I know that, most times, I am aping for an ambivalent crowd…and that’s before I step onto the sticky floor of some dim hovel to share my love of Cheap Trick for four hours.
This is what it actually sounds like, though. Love, fury, and 30th-century gynoids on motorcycles. I can’t wait to hear what these mutants do next.
-Thom Guthrie, 11/30/2017
- ’65 Corvette
- Fuck You, California
- American Millennial Cowboy
- Mostly Naked/Where My Drawers?
- Yo-Yo Blues
- Ride Or Die!
- Filibuster? I ‘ardly Know ‘er!
- Fuck You, California (Session Version)