The name can’t have helped. They probably were goofing around when they called the band Slobberbone, after a dog’s chew toy. It’s the kind of name you see third down on a four-band bill, some guys from town having fun and rocking out for thirty minutes before the band you want to hear comes on. Plenty of rock bands in Texas.
But maybe that band is better than the name suggests, countrifying the Replacements while turning up the volume, singing about failed relationships and deadly carnival rides and self-loathing in a bottle and generally having a pretty good time through it all. They put out a few albums, go on the road a bunch with fellow Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers, move up those bills with constant touring, still behind the name they started with.
So it’s time for that third album, for a pretty good minor label with the guy who produced the Replacements themselves behind the boards. And they can pull out all the stops — fiddle and pedal steel, mandolin and banjo, even a horn section to augment corny hoedowns and devastating laments and barnburning rockers. It’s a chance to put everything they’ve got into one record. A shot at the moon.
Slobberbone was mostly a four-piece, Tony Harper and Brian Lane on drums and bass and Jess Barr and Brent Best on guitar, with Best singing and writing the songs. Best’s voice is gruff and raspy yet tuneful with a bit of a twang, similar to Lucero’s Ben Nichols, and it can be self-deprecating and sincere with equal facility. He tends to overwrite songs, an Achilles heel that can lead to some great lines side by side with clunkers, but his voice and the band behind it carry the lyrics through any rough spots.
What makes Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today a leap beyond their previous (quite good) records is its diversity. The first three songs — “Meltdown,” “Placemat Blues,” and “Trust Jesus” — set the tone. “Meltdown” is a slow dirge led by a mournful fiddle as Best mourns the end of the world, or a failed relationship, or both:
So sign all your yearbooks, give a last glance.
We’ve all missed the prom, still you’re used to this dance.
Soon a figureless shadow will drown out the sun.
Hey baby, it’s the end of the world, I hope you have fun.
“Placemat Blues” twists the knob the other way. It’s a rocker that bites a riff from the Replacements’ “I.O.U.” as it thrashes and rails against the lack of space for Slobberbone’s kind of rock as opposed to the nü-er kind that was all over the radio in 2000. Then “Trust Jesus” shifts again, into one of Best’s er, best modes, as storyteller — the song narrates with kindness and bemusement the story of a traveling salesman who spray-paints the title phrase wherever he goes.
Whatever is playing, whatever comes next is different. “Lumberlung,” a relatively hushed and hallucinatory song about a sick man succumbing to depression, is followed by the delicate but propulsive and uplifting instrumental “Magnetic Heaven.” “That Is All,” a jaunty song with a lyric that gives the album its title, goes into “Josephine,” the album’s one cover — a long, slow blues written by a friend of theirs that chronicles a wallflower’s longing for a girl he can’t bring himself to talk to. And that in turn runs into the goofiest track on the album, the ode to sloth of “Lazy Guy”:
I’m amazed at the way some people try and try and try
To erect and then perfect some kind of proof that they’re alive before they die.
Well not me, ’cause I’m a lazy guy.
Yeah I’m amazed at the way the days just keep on slipping by
And I got plans and dreams and hopeful schemes, enough to make you cry.
I’m just waiting for that single perfect point in time to give ’em all a try,
But I’m a lazy guy.
That rueful humor defines so many of the best Slobberbone songs. It’s all over the would-be hit “Gimme Back My Dog,” one of the few songs that can boast being singled out in print by both Greil Marcus and Stephen King. It’s a country song with the most country of conceits — the woman who not only left you but also took your dog. Best is not having any of that:
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
It was mine before you knew me
It was mine before you’d chose me and use me and lose me, refuse me
The way you’re now refusing to
Gimme back my dog.
Sure it’s funny but it also hurts — this is the basic contradictory truth of life that so much country music is built to understand and that Best is an expert at describing. But what sends this to the stratosphere are Barr and Best’s guitars, which slash and wail through contradiction into transcendence, the release of letting pain become rock. There’s a similar dynamic at play in “Bright Eyes Darkened,” which has a thrashing, keening lead to rival Bob Stinson at his best, as Best tries to buck up a recently dumped friend and talk him out of the pit he’s crawled into:
Yeah but who am I to judge or negotiate your grudge?
I should keep my damn mouth closed.
You should call her with the news, tell her she’s the one who’s screwed.
You just might be right, who knows?
And then there’s “Some New Town,” the penultimate track, where Best himself is mourning what was lost:
This is just a phone call from the place you once lived
Where we’re still waiting for the sleet and rain to giveI
t’s just a line from your old town
Where we’re still drinking to the times when you were around.
The song is in 4/4 but with the downbeat on the three, giving it the forward momentum of a waltz with only one person dancing, constantly looking over his shoulder. This is Best’s clumsiest lyric, maybe intentionally — he not only rhymes “happy” with “crappy” but “pretty” with “shitty,” he’s blunt well past the point of cliche — but the song is carried by the remorseless rhythm, the twinkling and sliding guitars and, above all, the yearning in Best’s voice. The terrible thing here is not the loss, it’s the hope that maybe it can all go back to what it once was. In “Meltdown,” the world had the good grace to come to an end, here Best is soldiering on, trying to keep a lid on his pain. Until those guitars kick in.
I’ve listened to this song more times than I can count and they get me every time. Barr pulls notes out of his guitar like he’s yanking stitches from a wound and then starts cutting deeper and deeper, before rising out and passing off to Best, who soars higher and higher, remembering the good times and letting that awful, awful hope of bringing them back rise to a keening final note, an unspoken plea.
And Best then has the balls, the last-ditch desperation to open his mouth again. The main riff chimes back in along with that beat, the song’s intensity ratchets up an unbearable notch and Best is pushing all his chips in and laying all his cards on the table like Jarvis Cocker does at the end of “Disco 2000,” saying what wasn’t said and what probably can no longer be said but this is it, the last chance it has to be said so here goes:
Times were I wouldn’t hold your arm
For fear of letting go of the other one,
Fears I had to kiss you
With my eyes closed I might miss you
Looked at me in some way I hadn’t seen, if you
Took my words in some way I didn’t mean,
If your smile showed signs of some inner frown,
Of thoughts of packing up and moving on to some new town.
So of course the song after that, “Pinball Song,” which closes the album, is another story song full of jokes and bad behavior. Banjo and accordion track the story of Best hooking up with his buddy’s ex while the buddy is in the drunk tank, and the recriminations that occur when he gets up. The pinball metaphor is heavily worked — “So now I nailed the free game and there’s a bottle across my head, My table tilts, I’m headed for the floor/Went out to find an old friend but I lost me one instead, I lost it all for just another score,” Best drawls — and the song ends with a rueful polka that beat Larry David to the punch by several months. Just another day of heartbreak and regret, you have to laugh.
Here’s the funny thing — I have had this album for all of two weeks. I figured I should probably get it if I’m going to write about it. But I’ve had the songs for more than fifteen years, downloading them and burning them to a CD with some of their other tunes and listening to it over and over, and the mp3s on my computer even more (especially “Some New Town,” a classic for ending many a drunken night). They’re baked into my brain at a level few bands reach and listening to the album proper didn’t make me hear them for the first time, but it made me realize the wholeness of what they accomplished here. Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today — they can’t even title something simply for the DJs — got them enough buzz to follow it up with Slippage, an overproduced shot at bigger glories, and that of course didn’t break through, although it had plenty of excellent songs. I personally blame the vocal production, which fuzzed and reduced Best’s great voice, but surely the name didn’t do them any favors with the marketing folks. They broke up in 2005 when their bass player moved to Florida.
They went on one final tour of the Midwest. I flew from Boston from Chicago the day after my birthday to catch it. The packed house at the Abbey Pub demanded “Some New Town,” a song they rarely played live, and Best made fun of us for requesting a song “only pussies like” — a pretty facetious comment, I’m guessing, since he’s the one who wrote it. I can still see Barr on guitar, the 50th cigarette of the night feeding the miasma above his head (kids, smoking is terrible but it absolutely looks so cool), feeding that solo to Best, and remember shouting every word. The T-shirt of that final tour had as its graphic a hesher-looking dude holding back a mouthful of puke. What the hell, they weren’t going anywhere with that name, might as well lean into the unpalatability of it all. Still have the shirt, still have the songs, they both still hold up. Everything wrong about them was right, then and today.