The long and winding road that is the history of rock ‘n’ roll is littered with the carcasses of once mighty garage and punk bands who got boring as soon as they decided to “mature” in order to be “taken seriously” as “artists.” Overuse of scare quotes aside, when Denton, Texas quartet Slobberbone released their debut album, Crow Pot Pie, in 1994, there were probably very few people on the face of the earth who foresaw them ever aspiring to even attempt to make that leap. First of all, they were called Slobberbone, which sounds like a joke band name from a lost episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart sneaks into a crappy dive bar to see a show and gets puked on by a blackout-drunk Krusty the Clown. Plus, they had songs called “Whiskey Glass Eye” and lyrics like “You put my heart into a headlock/ And you threw it on the ground/ You stood and stomped, you stepped on it/ You kicked it all around/ Like some empty can of Miller/ Or some mangy blue-tick hound.” They were great, they were loud, they were fun, but they didn’t exactly ooze sophisticated artistry. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Someone’s gotta entertain the drunken redneck burnouts).
And yet, six years later, Slobberbone were releasing their masterful third album, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, containing some of the most well-crafted and emotionally resonant songs in the history of the alt-country genre. So how did they do it? By not completely abandoning their sense of the rowdy and ribald—just refining and tempering it a bit. Indeed, Everything features its share of volume (“Placemat Blues” is a wicked shot upside the head of heavy, hyperactive boogie guitars) and devilish hillbilly humor (the hoedown “Lazy Guy” features lines like, “I must defer a life of labor to someone who needs it more/ I’d much prefer to be their neighbor, just the guy who lives next door/Sit out on the porch with my crap guitar and my mason jar of tea, and you know why/ ’Cause I’m a lazy guy”). But there are also sad songs, played on acoustic guitar, about sadness, longing and regret. And those two sides of Slobberbone are melded seamlessly on Everything, just like any great Stones or Replacements album.
The focal points in Slobberbone’s effort to grow up (but not too much) are the voice and wordplay of frontman and songwriter Brent Best, whose brawny yet conversational square-jawed Texan bellow allows him to play the part of both brash barroom brawler and wounded lover—often within the same song. He’s just a regular guy, basically, except more articulate. This voice is epitomized on “Gimme Back My Dog,” one of the most deliciously bitter breakup songs since Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” Stephen King, of all people, has called it one of his favorite songs of all time, demonstrating that even someone who’s been married for almost 45 years can relate to the struggle of trying to reclaim what’s yours after a bad breakup: “Gimme back my dog/ It was mine before I met you/ It was mine before I’d let you come closer and hold it and know it/ The way you once knew me.” Me? I hate dogs, so the song doesn’t hit home as hard for me as it has for others, but I’ll freely admit that it wouldn’t have had the same bite if it were titled “Gimme Back My Kitty.”
Elsewhere, closer “Pinball Song” is basically just about an all-night drinking binge, but Best manages to pepper the saga with winking bits of drunkard poetry like, “She said you two were through, it seemed you were driving for different things/ I said I understood, I’ve wrecked that car.” But Best’s lyrical peak on Everything is the one song on which he sounds least like your favorite drinking buddy: “Lumberlung,” an evocative dreamlike allegory in the form of a desolate acoustic-based ballad sung by a sick man who feels he’s become a burden. What is the “road trip” dream depicted in the song supposed to mean? Beats me, but it’s one of the more bracingly visual verses in a rock song that I’ve ever heard.
What separates Everything from Slobberbone’s previous work, though, isn’t Best’s lyrics—he’d always known how to snap off a sneakily clever line here and there—but the arrangements, which are richer and more creative than those found on Crow Pot Pie or 1997’s Barrel Chested. Previously, Slobberbone had boasted a basic two-guitars-drums-and-bass setup totally dominated by lead guitarist Jess Barr. Barr’s fretwork is still arguably the central instrumental focus on Everything—check out his arena hero soloing on the slow-building epic “Josephine”—it’s only one part of a warm and earthy palette of mandolins, banjos, pedal steel, pianos and even horns on a couple of tracks. The “let’s raise a toast to the apocalypse” lament on “Meltdown” wouldn’t possess the same gravity without that mournful fiddle line; “Pinball Song” would sacrifice some of its playfulness without the accordion; “Lazy Guy” wouldn’t be as fun without the guest vocal harmonies by Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, another guy who started out in the mid-‘90s with a band with a goofy name that somehow morphed into a venerable classic rock unit.
Unfortunately, Slobberbone never got the chance to find a larger audience like the Truckers did. They released one more album after Everything—Slippage, in 2002—before disbanding. Best formed a new band with Barr, the Drams, but to date they’ve only released one album, the power-pop influenced Jubilee Dive in 2006. Since then, Slobberbone have reunited for a few sporadic mini-tours but have otherwise been up to god knows what. It’s this unfortunate trajectory that adds extra retrospective weight to the aforementioned “Placemat Blues,” on which Best furiously rants against the music industry, dissing Korn and Limp Bizkit while imploring, “Where’s the place at the table for folks like me?/ There’s not one that I can see.” Remember, Everything came out in 2000, when CD sales hit their all-time peak and file sharing was in its infancy—essentially the final point when the music industry could legitimately be considered an evil monolithic entity out to crush artistry and shit on the little guy in pursuit of bloated profits. Even three or four years later, Slobberbone would have had a better shot at circumventing the old system and growing their fanbase. But it was not to be. “That’s my rant, I don’t expect to make a dent,” bemoans Best. His frustration is understandable—he may have created a lost classic with Everything, but lost classics don’t do much good for their creators until they’ve been found.