Too much good music, too little time. Lubbock, Texas band the Thrift Store Cowboys’ album Light Fighter came out last fall: if you’ve been paying attention to the recently resuscitated alt-country scene, you probably already know that. This is for those who might have slept on it a year ago: it’s worth your time. A lot of this is like peak-era Wilco circa Summerteeth but with more balls and less drawl – frontman Daniel Fluitt sometimes lets his syllables run overtime like that band did, but he doesn’t overdo it. And he’s a better songwriter. That which is not Wilcoish is the best stuff here, rich with ghostly imagery, aching violin, steel guitar and desert ambience like the best southwestern gothic: which makes sense, since the album was recorded at Craig Schumacher’s legendary Wavelab studio, home to Steve Wynn and Friends of Dean Martinez, Giant Sand and the rest of those great spaghetti western-tinged bands that sprang up in the tumbleweeds back in the late 80s and 90s.
In fact, those seem to be two distinct and separate sides to this band: you could make two solid, separate playlists out of the album, one of them scary and one of them more straight-up alt-country. The latter would include the title track which leans closer to Son Volt, actually, but with a hypnotic, circular 6/8 vamp. The album’s second track sounds like Wilco if they’d gone into the desert and never come back, while Regardless and Ghost Guys take the Summerteeth formula and add snappy bass and shimmery steel guitar. Rosemary mixes in out-of-focus, guitar-fueled noise and a little Morricone-style guitar. And You Can’t See the Light puts a historical spin on a familiar-sounding country-rock ballad theme, in this case the bitter tale of a seminarian imprisoned and later executed during the Spanish Civil War.
But the scary playlist is the really amazing one here: the band could release this as an ep and they’d have a genuine classic. The menacing, chromatically-charged banjo shuffle 7’s and 9’s sounds like Botanica if they’d gone into the desert and never come back. The best song here, Scary Weeds, is written by and sung with gentle apprehension by violinist Amanda Shires. A paranoid 6/8 ballad about a couple on the run, it reminds of the Walkabouts, with Shires’ vividly ominous violin and low, urgent, unaffectedly chilling vocals. The surreal, dizzyingly evocative Morning Weekend begins with menacing sunrise desert ambience and morphs into a big backbeat anthem; Nothing, a sad 6/8 ballad about Buffalo soldiers dying of thirst in the desert after being led astray by clever Comanches defending their land, is a dialogue between one of the dead soldiers and his widow at home, who also ends up emptyhanded. You have to listen closely but it’s worth it. And Shires contributes another creepy, 6/8 tune, Lean into the Sway, an allusive, brooding ballad that could be a prequel to her other one here. The Thrift Store Cowboys made a swing through New York last year behind this album; let’s hope there’s another one down the line.