It’s hard to not wax nostalgic for the glory days of underground country. Instead of Millennials braying on and on about their feelings, you had post punk Gen X’ers enacting dangerous and aggressive avant-garde roots music that bordered on performance art. The Legendary Shack Shakers, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, and others offered an immersive experience and an orgy of sensations that the singer-songwriter set just can’t similarly achieve.
Up in the Pacific Northwest, those well-versed in the wild side of country would tell stories of Brent Amaker and is backing band The Rodeo showing up to gigs in full black regalia complete with Lone Ranger masks, genre bending the likes of Johnny Cash with David Bowie a full decade before another masked man from the same area would do similar.
It was a full-bodied Western experience worthy of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, served with bold and imaginative instrumentation, and the ghostly, guttural moans of Mr. Amaker. The pinnacle of this experience what’s the band’s 2013 album The Year of the Dragon. An expansive work of futuristic Western music, it took you to the edge of country and the Milky Way. It also made it on the Saving Country Music list for Albums of the 2010’s Decade.
But like so many underground country bands, Brent Amaker had a hard time finding enough national attention to make the thing chug along for the long term. You wonder how many of these bands would fare if they were coming up right now when there’s so much more support. But that didn’t happen for Brent, so he hung up his boots. Yet as he explains in the opening song, he never threw them away. After a 10 year hiatus, he’s back, pencil mustache and all.
The new album Philophobia is a bit more organic compared to The Year of the Dragon. It relies less on electronic keyboard-generated sounds to create the space in the music, and more on rhythmic percussion that plays off the galloping and propulsive guitar parts. This gives the album a more grounded feel, without completely doing away with the expansive sonic landscapes this music paints.
And of course, since it’s Brent Amaker and the Rodeo, it’s still hard-charging Western music with a flair of punk and mod influences that give it a faraway feel both in tone and in time. This is great music for driving and getting shit done to. It’s the layering of the instrumentation and how it stokes the imagination that sucks you in.
Brent Amaker was angry, unabashed, and at times, ribald in his early years. Songs like “Sissy New Age Cowboy” held nothing back, and are what placed him in the country underground that was unafraid to speak out about what was happening on the FM dial. They may have been underground, but Brent Amaker and The Rodeo were rock stars, if only in their own minds, and the minds of their fans.
Philophobia is a lot more mature, which can be expected after 10 years more of life and wisdom. There is even a love song in “Audrianna.” But don’t worry, the Rodeo is still wild. There’s just now more purpose behind every note, and a more thoughtful approach to the lyricism. Then when you get to the final song ‘Danger,” it reminds you of The Rodeo of old.
Not everybody will understand exactly what to make of this music. It’s foreign to this time in more ways than one. But that’s also what makes Brent Amaker and The Rodeo so original in a time when everyone else seems to be preoccupied with trying to sound like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, or ’90s country.
Long live weird and cool country music like Brent Amaker and The Rodeo.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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