Songwriter Joe Maynard is one of New York’s urban country pioneers. He got his start here back around the turn of the century, fronting a funny band called the Illbillies, then went in a more trad direction, at least musically, with the Millerite Redeemers, who morphed into Maynard & the Musties. When not playing music, Maynard’s gig is dealing in rare books, which explains the band name. Although his songs can be LMFAO funny, they’re just as likely to be poignant or even haunting, sometimes with a defiant political edge. And unlike so many of the recent transplants here who call themselves country but are as country as Blake Shelton, Maynard originally hails from Nashville. That might have something to do with how oldschool his mix of honkytonk anthems, cry-in-your-beer ballads and brooding Nashville gothic tales can be. And as much as the band can channel a vintage C&W sound, they can also really rock out when they want. They’re headlining an excellent Americana triplebill on March 11 at the Way Station, with brassy, female-fronted rockabilly band Rocket J & the 88s opening at 9, followed by Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbillies (no relation to Maynard’s old band) at 10 and then Maynard himself at 11.
Their latest album, Fall On In – streaming at Bandcamp – was produced by Americana maven and ex-Lakeside Lounge honcho Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who also contributes some of his signature guitar. This band went through a million drummers: none of them worked out until they found Pierre Scoffini, who’s absolutely brilliant, and Ambel obviously had a lot of fun capturing his offbeat cymbal swooshes and counterintuitive snare hits.
Lead player Mike Randall doesn’t waste any time throwing off some restlessly growling six-string lines on the opening track, the swamp-rock flavored Evil Flower. The C&W shuffle Smart Ass, spiced with Jonathan Gregg’s rippling pedal steel, offers a sardonic look at the value of higher education. The fiery Americana rock tune Chinese Jail is Maynard – who’s never sung more vigorously than he does here, over a backdrop of slowly phased Exile on Main Street guitars – at his surrealistic, twisted best.
With its gorgeous web of jangling, twanging guitar from Randall, Mo Botton, Gregg and Maynard himself, Road to Ruin paints an even more twisted urban picture, and has an absolutely hilarious line about sex with a woman of a certain age. Death is a departure into creepy circus rock, bassist Chet Hartin adding accordion over the vaudevillian pulse of Dikko Faust’s trombone. The gently swinging, wistful Broken Angel dates back to the Millerite Redeemers days.
The slow, uneasily misty Waiting on a Train brings to mind John Prine – a guy Maynard often evokes – at his most wryly allusive, fiddler Naa Koshie Mills adding stark, bagpipe-ish textures. Part honkytonk, part western swing, Boozy Memory is the album’s funniest track. The weirdest track is another older tune, The Beef Trade in Suede, reinvented here as a Tex-Mex number. The scariest one is Caroline and Danny, a tale of obsession and cheating gone horribly wrong. The album winds up with the joyously careening We Are The People!, which could be an Occupy anthem, and the morbid miniature Everyone’s Dead. Fans of the lyrical side of Americana from Alex Battles to Steve Earle ought to check this out.