Greg Smith & the Broken English: Music for the People

by delarue

People always go back to Americana when pop music goes in the toilet. It started to happen in the period right before Elvis, then right before the Beatles, but it’s never happened to the extent that it is right now. And a lot of what’s left of the clueless contingent who believe that there is even such a thing as a record label anymore, let alone one that would make you famous, is trying to cash in, trading in their leather jackets and fishnets for cowboy hats and banjos.

Then you’ve got the Mumfords – the 21st century Eagles – and Deer Tick, who’ve pretty much outed themselves as Nirvana wannabes rather than having any lasting interest in Americana. That’s where Greg Smith & the Broken English come in. People love the kind of music they do. It’s country, and it’s rock too, but it’s not New Nashville. It’s not exactly edgy, but it’s not stupid either. And it’s catchy, and it’s fun, you can sing along to it, and if you know your way around a guitar, you can play it too without much trouble. They’re playing the album release show for their new one Ramblin’ Road on May 16 at 11 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

The shuffling first track, Ain’t That Bad has a tasty web of acoustic and electric guitars from Smith and Josh Chaplin, Smith tossing off a tasteful, blues-infused solo that he ends with a growl and then a scream. And the point of the song is cool: with the world in such a precarious state, there’s no shame in being depressed. The second track, Whiskey Breath Cigarettes nicks the opening riff from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and then motors along on a highway rock groove, the wry life story of a party animal who started young and doesn’t care to quit. It’s fun without being cheesy.

Smith and harmony singer Dayna Webber’s vocals on Livin’ Like a Joker allude to the Sympathy for the Devil over a biting Neil Young-inspired melody with a tasty slide guitar break. Hey What’s the Use contemplates how much hope there is in farm life “between the garden and the grave,” over the briskly swinging shuffle of bassist Jon Callegari and drummer Sean Tuccillo. It would make a good Farm Aid anthem.

Chaplin’s gospel-tinged piano pair off against Smith’s Jerry Garcia-esque slide guitar on the loping ballad Losing Hand. The lush, backbeat-driven piano-and-acoustic guitar amthem Nowhere Left to Hide is a lot more optimistic than the title suggests, sort of a more down-to-earth take on Deer Tick. Drifts Away starts out like early 70s Dead and then goes in more of an anthemic BoDeans direction. Way Back Down ventures even further into into BoDeans territory, complete with the chord changes from Feed the Fire, a long, biting guitar solo and a shot at singalong backup vocals.

Dizzy in the Head makes pensively swaying Americana rock out of the riff from Don’t Fear the Reaper. Oak and Ashes is the most folk-tinged tune on the album: like most everything here, whiskey figures in the lyrics. The kiss-off tune Play Like a Little Girl brings back the electric Neil Young vibe. Little Darlin reaches for a Gram-and-Emmylou feel (although that whistling intro is just plain annoying); the album ends impressively with the angry breakup ballad Spare Me Eliza and its snarling guitar leads.

So who is the audience for this? Fratboys? Sure. Jersey tourists? Yeah, them too. And you, and everybody else, with the possible exception of the prissy Bushwick boys who’re too busy disapproving of what you’re wearing to ever crack a smile.