Years in the making and probably a break-even proposition at best, Southern Rock Opera is a two-disc, 20-song opus about the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and growing up in the South during the '70s proffered by a criminally underrecognized, hand-to-mouth indie road band from northern Alabama. This is clearly a labor of love, a bid for art rather than commerce, and a far, far better record than it has any right to be.
One of rock-and-roll's great obscure treasures for a few years now, the Truckers have outdone themselves with Southern Rock Opera, even if the tongue-in-cheek but still literal title is a little misleading: This record is a Southern-rock equivalent to Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade not just because it's a great, dirty-sounding guitar record, but because, like Zen Arcade, the "opera" aspect is more theory than fact.
Co-lead singer/guitarist Patterson Hood lends the album its conceptual core, his songs mostly anthemic treatises on Skynyrd and the prickly contours of recent Southern history. "Ronnie and Neil" sets the tone early, Hood riding a tough riff as he juxtaposes a '60s Alabama where church bombings coincided with the great interracial soul music being made in Muscle Shoals, allowing Hood to segue into a deft recounting of the controversy between Neil Young and Skynyrd's Ronnie VanZant over "Sweet Home Alabama." "Let them guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil," Hood shouts on the chorus, which is appropriate given how the Truckers' own three-guitar attack owes as much to the live rust of Neil Young and Crazy Horse as to the nimble boogie of Skynyrd.
Hood gets back to more Skynyrd specifics on the second disc, but his best songs here deal with his own experience of Southern history. "The Southern Thing" is a New South anthem seeking a third way between heritage and hate, Hood singing, "Ain't about no hatred/Better raise a glass/It's a little about some rebels but it ain't about the past/Ain't about no foolish pride/Ain't about no flag Proud of the glory/Stare down the shame/Duality of the Southern Thing."
Hood, who may be the finest talker in all of rock-and-roll, peaks with the eight-minute monologue "The Three Great Alabama Icons" (Ronnie VanZant, George Wallace, and Bear Bryant), which opens sardonically, "I grew up in north Alabama in the 1970s, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth." The song offers an even-handed appraisal of Wallace as "no worse than most men of his generation, North or South," but Hood condemns him anyway, following the monologue with "Wallace," which imagines the devil preparing Wallace's place in hell: "And if it's true that he wasn't a racist and he just did all them things for the votes/I guess hell's just the place for kiss-ass politicians who pander to assholes."
Hood's chief partner is Mike Cooley, who, outside of "Shut Up and Get On the Plane," side two's great reimagining of Skynyrd's final departure, acts like he didn't get the script. Cooley's songs here are more personal and less concerned with the album's conceptual framework than Hood's, but they're a remarkable batch of songs, finally establishing Cooley as the Grant Hart to Hood's Bob Mould.
"Seems like it's always hot down here/No matter when you come/It's the kind of heat that holds you like a mama holds her son/Tight when he tries to walk/Even tighter if he runs," Cooley sings on "72 (This Highway's Mean)," his first appearance, and just takes off from there. His "Guitar Man Upstairs" is a locomotive, boogie-based sketch of a former landlord, and "Zip City," a downright Springsteenian meditation on a high school girlfriend, may be the best thing on the whole record. -- Chris Herrington
Jesus Loves Stacey, Cry Baby Cry (Skoda Records)
Despite reports in Maximum Rock'N'Roll to the contrary, pop-punk is not yet dead. Take, for example, Jesus Loves Stacey, the debut album from Cry Baby Cry, the latest band from the Washington, D.C., emo scene to break from its environs. From its opening track, "The Last Days of Tarzan the Ape Man," replete with chunky guitar chords and bright keyboard riffs, through the driving "Monkey's Darling" (what's up with the simian theme here?) and the rock-and-roll sing-along of "Calling Out," Jesus Loves Stacey neatly fills the indie-credible void left empty since Green Day went mainstream in the mid-'90s.
Guitarists James Brady (ex-Trusty) and Kathy Cashel (ex-Norman Mayer Group) share the vocal duties -- and while Brady is eminently capable and provides grounding harmonies as well as lead vocals, it's Cashel's voice that makes this album shine. On the angry "A Sad Song of Needless Complication" and the resilient "Over and After," she carries the band with passionate authority while drummer Jenn Thomas and bassist Drew Sutter hold down the rhythm section -- then strips down the sound for the philosophical ballad "Chemical Castration."
While Cry Baby Cry name-check the usual rock references (the Beatles, the Who) and cite a well-worn litany of adolescent crises -- suicide, lost love, religious doubt -- they do it with style and clout. Listening to Jesus Loves Stacey may not change your life, but it's a damn fine way to spend a few hours. -- Andria Lisle
Cry Baby Cry will be at the Map Room on Saturday, December 8th.
Nice, Rollins Band (Sanctuary Records)
When I began this review, Henry Rollins was hosting Fox's mid-season replacement Night Visions. The fact that the horror anthology was beheaded before this review's publication is either a testament to my monolithic procrastination or to the daunting ephemerality of television producers' whimsy. Of course, Rollins' lockjawed turn as the "Master of Scare-amonies" was no particular boon. This fact is mentioned only because I have spent countless hours trying to explain to my little Gen Y brother that the tattooed meathead he saw in such sci-fi stinkers as Jack Frost, Johnny Mnemonic, and Snowboarding Warlocks used to actually be in a hella wicked band called Black Flag. And at one time, God forgive us, he was one of the foremost political spokespersons of my generation.
It's hard to tell exactly what Henry Rollins is going on about over the course of Nice. But whatever it is, it sure has him fuming in his breeches. There are vague themes of politics and social commentary, but ultimately the message can be boiled down to 'roided-up self-empowerment -- a motivational Tony Robbins for the wallet-chain set. So we're stuck with lyrics like "I'm looking high/I'm looking low/I wanna know/Therefore I go/Your number is One" and "Back in the lab they shock my brain/I am electrically insane" taking center stage. Keep in mind that these gems of poesy, borrowing equally from the literary schools of Dr. Seuss and Twisted Sister's Dee Snyder, are flowing from the mouth of a bona fide publishing magnate with 20 books under his weightlifting belt. I'm sure that the album's title is meant facetiously, as in "wink, wink, we're actually quite naughty." However, on this toothless rock release, the only thing that is truly "nice" is that there isn't a goddamned nü-metal DJ in sight. -- David Dunlap Jr.